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A Grizzly Chronology

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Michael Maslan Historic Photographs/CORBIS |

Science knew about grizzlies long before Lewis and Clark ever set foot in the American West. Some naturalists had even gone so far as to recognize the bear as a new, unique species. For example, naturalist Thomas Pennant had done so in his Arctic Zoology, which was published in London in 1784.

However, Pennant and other naturalists relied exclusively on secondhand sources, like explorer's journals, for their scientific descriptions. Meriwether Lewis was the first naturalist to encounter a grizzly bear in the flesh, and his account became the new standard.

Lewis and Clark even brought a (deceased) specimen back for scientific study in 1806. (The following year, explorer Lieutenant Zebulon Pike delivered two live grizzly bear cubs to President Thomas Jefferson, and these became the first grizzlies ever put on public display in the world.)

In 1814, DeWitt Clinton published a thesis on the grizzly bear based almost entirely on Lewis's benchmark field observations and the specimen he had brought back from his trip, further paving the way for the animal's official classification. Not long after, naturalist George Ord gave the grizzly the species name Ursus horribilis Ord, which means "Ord's horrible bear" — a nod to himself and to Lewis's terrifying, first-person account of the grizzly.

In 1815, naturalist Adelbert von Chamisso proposed that the grizzly was simply another type of brown bear and not a distinct species, but it wasn't until 1851 that biologist Alexander Theodor von Middendorff recognized all brown bears as the species Ursus arctos. That same year, Middendorff gave the grizzly the subspecies name Ursus arctos horribilis, which means "horrible northern bear."

For over a century, scientists recognized several North American brown bear subspecies. That changed in 1953 when biologist R.L. Rausch designated all brown bears not living on Alaska's Kodiak, Afognak and Shuyak islands as grizzlies. Kodiak bears remained Ursus arctos middendorffi, which means "Middendorff's northern bear."

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