The link to the story requires a subscription to Science, but here are a few tidbits from the story--which includes details about a priority fight between the teams that published the two papers.
What kind of bear was Winnie-the-Pooh? Author A. A. Milne christened the fictional character after the teddy bear of his son, who in turn had borrowed the name from an American black bear in the London Zoo called Winnipeg. Yet for decades, researchers have argued about whether Winnipeg's scientific name should be Ursus americanus or Euarctos americanus. Indeed, although there are only eight species of living bears, scientists have come up with at least half a dozen versions of the bear family tree.
Now a paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) online this week helps untangle bear phylogeny by presenting "the first mitochondrial genome" from the extinct cave bear, Ursus spelaeus. But another paper, published with little fanfare last July, also reported the complete mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the cave bear, as well as that of the extinct American short-faced bear, Arctodus simus. The two teams are arguing about scientific priority. But for the bears, this means that two sets of data now illuminate their family tree, although the studies disagree about the timing of bear evolution.
Here's more:... both groups agree on the outline of the bear family tree. They confirm that the giant panda was the first species to split off from the lineage leading to later bears, and both conclude that the cave bear shared a common ancestor with the brown bear and the polar bear, which turn out to be closely related to each other. Moreover, both teams slash the number of genera of living bears from seven in some schemes, to three for the Hofreiter group and four for the Elalouf group. They assign most species--including Winnipeg's--to the genus Ursus.
But in addition to the disagreement over priority, they also differ on when this all happened:
Yet when it comes to the timing of the recent bear radiation, the two groups part company. Elalouf concludes that it was only about 2 million to 3 million years ago, using a previous estimate of the giant panda's divergence at 12 million years ago as a chronological anchor point. Hofreiter's team anchors its tree with the much earlier divergence of the harbor seal and finds that the panda split off earlier, about 19 million years ago, and that the rest of the bears radiated about 5 million years ago. He notes that some aspects of climate changed dramatically about that time, when the Bering Strait opened and the Mediterranean Sea became drier. Other mammals also showed dramatic changes at this time, such as the split between the human and ape lineages.
Nevertheless, as I point out in the story, at least Winnie-the-Pooh finally has his scientific name.
Illustration: Artist's drawing of the extinct cave bear