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With the exception of unconfirmed sightings, MacFarlane's bear is sometimes thought to have gone extinct since the specimen was obtained in 1864. There have been many theories concerning the origin of MacFarlane's bear, which include suggestions that it may have been a grizzly–polar bear hybrid, or even a surviving representative of a Pleistocene species.
Today, it is known that grizzly-polar bear hybrids (referred to as grolars or pizzlies) do occur on occasion and that they match the specimen's description very well, notably the pale tan fur, and apparently also the oddly shaped skull which led Merriam to propose his new genus. While this seems to be a satisfying explanation, it was not tested thoroughly because the hybridization theory was for long just that. Now that more than circumstantial data from such hybrids exists, ancient DNA analysis and/or a morphological study of the skull may well resolve the case of McFarlane's specimen. If it turns out to be a hybrid the scientific names Vetularctos and Ursus inopinatus would become invalid under the ICZN.
In episode #215 of the History Channel program Monster Quest, "Giant Bear Attack", paleontologist Dr. Blaine W. Schubert (of East Tennessee State University) was allowed to examine the skull (although the Institute did not allow the examination to be filmed). Schubert stated that he was "100% sure" that it was the skull of a young, female brown bear and "actually, not a particularly large individual."
In a 1984 publication intended to correct Merriam's 1929 taxonomy proposing 96 distinct species names for varieties of brown bear, E. Raymond Hall synonymized all 96 of Merriam's names with merely nine subspecies of U. arctos. Hall synonymized Velarctos inopinatus with U. arctos horribilis, the normal grizzly bear.