Phenotypic Variation in Skull Size and Shape Between Newfoundland and Mainland Populations of North American Black Bears, Ursus americanus


  • John A. Virgl Ecological Development and Statistical Analysis, 222 Haight Place, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7H 4W2
  • Shane P. Mahoney Science Division, Wildlife and Protected Areas, P. O. Box 8700, Department of Tourism, Culture, and Recreation, St. John's, Newfoundland A1B 4J6
  • Kim Mawhinney Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, 6 Bruce Street, Mount Pearl, Newfoundland A1N 4T3



Black Bear, Ursus americanus, heritability, ontogeny, multivariate analysis, Newfoundland


It is well recognized that differences in environmental selection pressures among populations can generate phenotypic divergence in a suite of morphological characteristics and associated life history traits. Previous analysis of mitochondrial DNA and body size have suggested that Black Bears (Ursus americanus) inhabiting the island of Newfoundland represent a different subspecies or ecotype from mainland populations. Assuming that body size covaries positively with skull size, we predicted that skull size would be greater for bears on the island than the mainland, and the distribution of size-related shape components in multivariate space should show a distinct separation between Newfoundland and mainland populations. Measurements of 1080 specimens from Newfoundland, Alberta, New York, and Quebec did not provide unequivocal support for our prediction that skull size in Newfoundland bears would be larger than bears from the mainland populations. After removing ontogenetic effects of skull size, between-population variation in skull shape was greater in females than males, and the analysis significantly separated Newfoundland bears from mainland populations. Explanations for this pattern are numerous, but currently remain hypothetical. Limited covariation between skull size and body size suggests that genetic traits regulating the size of Black Bear skulls are more heritable (i.e., less influenced by environmental selection pressures) than characteristics affecting body size. We hypothesize that if gape size does not limit prey size in solitary terrestrial carnivores, large degrees of among-population variation in body size should be coupled with little covariation in skull size. In general, sexual dimorphism in skull size and shape was marginal for the phenotypic characters measured in our study. We believe that sexual dimorphism in skull size in Black Bears is primarily driven by intrasexual selection in males for increased gape size display, while similarity in skull shape between sexes is associated with the constraints of a temporally-selective, but similar diet.