The bear family, Ursidae, is believed to have split off from other carnivorans about 38 million years ago. The Ursinae subfamily originated approximately 4.2 million years ago. The oldest known polar bear fossil is a 130,000 to 110,000-year-old jaw bone, found on Prince Charles Foreland in 2004. Fossils show that between ten to twenty thousand years ago, the polar bear’s molar teeth changed significantly from those of the brown bear. Polar bears are thought to have diverged from a population of brown bears that became isolated during a period of glaciation in the Pleistocene or from the eastern part of Siberia, (from Kamchatka and the Kolym Peninsula).
The evidence from DNA analysis is more complex. The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the polar bear diverged from the brown bear, Ursus arctos, roughly 150,000 years ago. Further, some clades of brown bear, as assessed by their mtDNA, are more closely related to polar bears than to other brown bears, meaning that the polar bear is not a biological species. The mtDNA of extinct Irish brown bears is particularly close to polar bears. A comparison of the nuclear genome of polar bears with that of brown bears revealed a different pattern, the two forming genetically distinct clades that diverged approximately 603,000 years ago, although the latest research is based on analysis of the complete genomes (rather than just the mitochondria or partial nuclear genomes) of polar, brown and black bears, and establishes the divergence of polar and brown bears at 4–5 million years ago.
However, the two species have mated intermittently for all that time, most likely coming into contact with each other during warming periods, when polar bears were driven onto land and brown bears migrated northward. Most brown bears have about 2 percent genetic material from polar bears, but one population, the ABC Islands bears has between 5 percent and 10 percent polar bear genes, indicating more frequent and recent mating. Polar bears can breed with brown bears to produce fertile grizzly–polar bear hybrids, rather than indicating that they have only recently diverged, the new evidence suggests more frequent mating has continued over a longer period of time, and thus the two bears remain genetically similar. However, because neither species can survive long in the other’s ecological niche, and because they have different morphology, metabolism, social and feeding behaviors, and other phenotypic characteristics, the two bears are generally classified as separate species