Friday, May 27

The Whole Tail Tale

I take questions about my posts seriously, and try to answer them whenever I can, even if it means I have to tackle controversial subjects. So when Kim asked a question about the length of bears' tails ("....don't bears have little stubby tails?") on this post, I felt obligated to look into it and post the answer for her. I had no idea that this would be the most controversial subject I've ever researched, one with more disagreement among the experts than even the Calvinism/Arminianism debate.

Well, the experts all agree on one thing: the official description of a bear's tail is stumpy, not stubby. They can't agree, however, on how long the bear's stumpy tail is. The bear's tail is "a small, furry flap of skin measuring only about 4.8 inches in length," says the American Bear Association, while other sites give measurements from two inches to eight. I suppose it depends on the type and size of the individual bear.

I really ought to be able to answer this question from personal experience, but I can't. I accidently saw the back end of a bear up close once, and it wasn't the tail I noticed, but the overpowering smell. Take my compost pile on a hot July day, put it in a dank basement, turn the smell control knob up 5 whole turns, and you should have something pretty close to the smell of that bear. Bears, it seems, are not all that big on personal hygiene. It works quite well for them, at least if they're looking to keep the precise length of their tails hidden from the casual observer.

One site gave this handy fact: A bear's tail is shorter than the length of its hind feet. I guess that settles it. Curious about the length of a particular bear's tail? Simply measure one back foot and then subtract something and you've got a good estimate of the measurement of its tail.

Despite all this disagreement and uncertaintly over the exact length of bears' tails, we can probably conclude with some degree of accuracy that the bear pictured in the post that started this inquiry is not anatomically correct. Although it's a little hard to tell with no back end view to judge.

The controversy continues when you look for the answer to the question, "Why is the bear's tail as small as it is?" There are scientific answers, but the scientists don't agree on which particular answer is the corrrect one. Bears' tails are small, some say, because the longer ones they used to have in the olden days were useless. A bear's display behaviour involves facing forward, either on all fours or back twos, and a tail just doesn't show from that postition; so over time, realizing how worthless those long tails were if they weren't going to be showing them off, bears grew shorter ones. Either that or they found out--the polar bears especially--that big ears and long tails are inefficient to heat at forty below zero and so they ditched them. Other scientists, however, point to one very important function for which bears' tails are aptly suited.

And while, as you read above, there are some who argue bears' tails are small because bears face trouble head on, there are those of the other camp who maintain that bears face trouble head on because they have small tails.
Because of their very short tails and long hair, bears cannot use tail or torso to send signals through body language as some other creatures do. This may explain why the head, neck and mouth are used so much to communicate.
See! It's more like a certain theological debate than you thought, isn't it?

But why look for scientific answers when there are folk tales and myths that answer the question with so much more pizzazz, if not more clarity? There's the famous Norwegian or Ojibway or Iroquois one* (Yep, there's even disagreement on the origin of the ancient tail tales!) about the fox or trickster or otter or lynx (There are different version of the Ojibway tale with different antagonists, and yes, more controversy.) who fools the bear into ice fishing with his beautiful long tail and the tail freezes in the ice and snaps off. "From that day to this, all bears have had very short tails."

Other groups disagree (You saw this coming, didn't you?) with the Ojibway/Iroquois/Norwegians. The Australian Aborigines say the bear's tail is short because a very angry kangaroo cut it off with a boomerang. There's a Malay myth that says that the bear and the tiger tied their tails together and then both panicked and ran off in opposite directions. The bear ended up with the short end of the stick--or the shorter end of the tail, anyway.

That's pretty much all there is to know for sure about bears' short tails. It does leave one burning question, though: If bears' tails are short, how come the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor--otherwise known as Big Bear and Little Bear--have long tails? Blame Zeus for that. He's the one who flung those two bears into the sky by their tails and stretched them in the process.

There you go, Kim. Does that help?

* seems the Navajo lay claim to this legend as well. The confusion never ends.

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