Is it a brown bear or it is a grizzly?

Carnivores

To really answer this question, let’s start by looking back at some brown bear taxonomy (the branch of science concerned with classification, especially of organisms) history, shall we?

Bear taxonomy went through many revisions before scientists recached the conclusion of Ursus arctos.In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, taxonomists frequently lumped and split brown/grizzly bears into many different species and subspecies. In 1918 the separation peaked with the publication of C. Hart Merriam’s “Review of the Grizzly and Big Brown Bears of North America.” Merriam proposed around 80 species and subspecies of North American brown bears existed. Merriam’s nuanced classifications of brown and grizzly bears were based on differences in skull morphology and dentition, which he examined in painstaking detail. Merriam classified on southeast Alaska’s Admiralty Island alone, there was 5 distinct subspecies and in the Katmai region, 2 distinct subspecies as well as other living in the Cook Inlet area and on the Kenai Peninsula. But most of the species or subspecies described by Merriam were later regarded as local variations or individual variants. As of the mid 1980’s as many as 9 extant or extinct subspecies of U.arctoswere recognized in North America.

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Russell, our resident Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear!

Which brings us to the age old saying “All grizzly bears are brown bears but not all brown bears are grizzlies”. Now even with all the research done by Merriam this saying still has some backing to it. Now a days there are only 3 main subspecies of brown bears recognized by most of the scientific community, Kodiak brown bears, Alaskan Coastal brown bears and Grizzly brown bears. These bears are very similar but still have their differences to classify them as different subspecies. The 2 big determining differences are size and location. Each of the subspecies are geographically and genetically isolated from the other subspecies of brown bear.

Kodiak brown bears (Ursus arctos middendorffi) which main populations are only found on Kodiak Island in Alaska are the largest of the brown bear subspecies. Now these bears are not genetically different enough to be classified as their own species but are distinct enough that they can be classified as their own subspecies because they been isolated from mainland bears for over 12,000 years. Now these bears can get up to 1,500lbs and stand up to 10ft tall. Kodiak brown bears can get this big because they live on islands and they have access to a marine-driven food resource all year round with their favorite being salmon!IMG_9376

The next subspecies, very similar to Kodiak brown bears, are the Alaskan Coastal Brown Bears (Ursus arctos gyas). These bears are known as the ABC island bears  because their populations are only found on Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof island in southeast Alaska. Alaskan Coastal brown bears can reach large sizes as well, they can reach up to 1,200lbs and stand around 8 ½ to 9ft tall. Just like the Kodiak brown bears, Alaskan Coastal brown bears can reach this size because of their access to marine-driven food resources all year round with their favorite being salmon too! Alaskan Coastal brown bears are unique because they are the most genetically different compared to all other brown bears. Alaskan Coastal brown bears actually share more genetic information with polar bears than other brown bears. This could be due to interbreeding with a small isolated number of polar bears during the last ice age. As more recently, scientists have found more Alaskan Coastal brown bears with polar bear DNA in the northern parts of Alaska suggesting that there has been more interbreeding recently and possibility creating a new bear species, currently known as a “Prizzie”!

The final subspecies is the most common of the three and the reason for the main question of this post, Grizzly brown bears (Ursus arctos horribillis). Grizzlies are considered the smallest of the 3 brown bears subspecies. On average, grizzly brown bears only reach up to 900lbs and 7ft tall. Grizzly brown bears are much smaller because they are inland bears with there main populations found in southwestern Canada and the lower 48 states, they do not have easy access to a marine-driven, high calorie food resource. So Grizzly brownbears must work a little harder for their food, so they don’t build up as much fat as compared to the other 2 subspecies of brown bear. Grizzly brown bears are also known for that distinct hump on their backs. That hump is pure muscles from their shoulders as is usually used as a key morphological identifier for Grizzly brown bears. Grizzly brown bears are also found to be a bit more reactive to humans being around in the distance. This doesn’t not mean they are more aggressive than the other brown bear subspecies, but it is a behavior picked up because Grizzly brown bears are in more human populated areas compare to the other subspecies who live on mostly unpopulated islands. All three subspecies have about the same temperament.

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Now that you have the facts, what do you think? Is it a brown bear or is it a grizzly? Do you agree with the statement of “All grizzly bears are brown bears but not all brown bears are grizzlies?” or do you think more research needs to be done? Let us know by leaving a comment

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Bear-y Interesting….

Carnivores, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

During the warmer parts of the year you will see our two Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear girls, Russell and Claire, and our two Grizzly Bear boys, Mak and Oso, in our Brown Bear drive through area.

Surprisingly, the biggest distinction between brown and black bears isn’t the color of their fur, as they can both range from light brown to black in color, but rather their affinity for either climbing or digging. Brown bears are great diggers and can dig a hole the size of a small car in about 2 days. They have a huge muscle on their back and long front claws which help them dig and forage underground. Black bears are great climbers and are often found in trees. They have larger hips and shorter, curved claws to help them climb.

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Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Bears live to be around 30 years old in the wild and in captivity. For their weight, it is amazing that they can run up to 30 mph. They can outrun a horse, out swim an Olympian, kill a cow with one blow, and drag a full grown elk uphill. This is the reason why we have “protected contact” with our bears, meaning there is always a barrier between us and them. Even if our bears just wanted to give us a hug, it would not turn out well for us.

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Black Bear – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

They have an amazing sense of smell. Bears can detect odors 6 inches underground through solid dirt, normal odors 3 miles away, and strong rancid odors 15-20 miles away.

Bears are omnivorous scavengers so they’ll pretty much eat anything they can find. Our bears all have their favorite foods, just like we do; Mak and Oso love their produce while Russell and Claire love their meat. A human eats about 2,000 calories a day while a bear can eat over 15,000 calories in a day. Their main sources of protein in the wild are fish and insects. However, fishing is a learned behavior that has to be taught. Mak and Oso are 11 years old and have been with us most of their live, and it wasn’t until last summer that Mak caught his first fish from their pond – he was as surprised as we were! Bears are social learners and learn by watching other bears.

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Photo Courtesy of Mandy Ho

We train our bears by capturing their natural behaviors. This not only helps stimulate the bears mentally but also helps us perform stress-free health checks on them. For instance, our bears are trained to show us their teeth and paws so we can check their oral health and paw pads for any injuries. We exercise positive reinforcement training, meaning we reward our animals when they do well, and ignore it if they do not. We never say ‘no’ or give out punishment when they do something wrong. We also always ask our animals to come do something, we never force them. Usually, a tasty snack is motivation enough for our animals to come train with us.

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Donna, one of Wildlife Safari’s resident Black Bears – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Bears are not very vocal animals. In the wild, you’ll never see a bear stand up on its hind legs and roar like in the movies. They actually only take that stance when they are trying to pinpoint a smell. Bears are very wobbly on their hind legs and it exposes their stomach to potential attacks. If they really wanted to scare you, they’d plant themselves firmly on all fours. Fortunately, bears in the wild like to stay away from humans and will run off if they see/smell/hear you coming. This means you will likely never come across a bear unless it was so engrossed in something that it didn’t mind you approaching.

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Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

There are 8 types of bears: American black bear, Asian black bear, brown bear, giant panda, sloth bear, sun bear, polar bear, and spectacled bear (also called Andean bear). There are about 16 recognized subspecies of brown bears and their size differs by region with the Yukon grizzly around 400 pounds and Kodiak brown bear up to 1500 pounds.

Hibernation

Here at Wildlife Safari we are fortunate to be able to hibernate all our bears. Hibernation is not an instinctual behavior but rather a learned one, like fishing. Our girls came to us knowing the basics of hibernation, so when our boys came to us they learned from the girls over a 3 year period. They each get bales of hay to bed down for the duration of their sleep, from November to late February. During this period, our girls have to be separated because Russell is a bed hog. However, our boys stay together and will actually cuddle for the duration of their sleep.

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Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear, Russell – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Daylight, temperature, and food availability are all cues for hibernation. When there’s less sunlight, it gets colder and food gets scarce, the bears prepare for hibernation. Here at Wildlife Safari, we can control their hibernation to some degree. Beginning in early October, we start giving them foods they don’t particularly like: broccoli, brussell sprouts, etc. This mimics the decrease in food availability in the wild and is their final cue to settle down to hibernate. Essentially, they decide they would rather go to sleep than eat another brussell sprout! During hibernation, they have a slowed metabolism, heart rate, and respiration. They lose 15% of their body weight and this is also the time when any lingering injuries will heal.

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Grizzly Bears, Mak and Oso – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Ninety-five percent of female bears give birth during hibernation, usually in early January. Bears will mate during breeding season but fertilized eggs aren’t implanted in the uterus until the fall when she is ready to hibernate. This is an important process; if she doesn’t gain enough weight to carry her through winter, the embryo will not implant and is reabsorbed by the body. Cubs are born blind, hairless, toothless, and weigh less than 1 lb. They stay with mom until they’re 2 years old, are sexually mature at about 5 years, but continue growing until about 10 years.

Though we use the term “hibernation” when referring to this process for bears, they are not true hibernators. This process is actually referred to as torpor or carnivore lethargy. Like true hibernators, they do not eat, urinate, or defecate during their hibernation. But unlike true hibernators, their metabolism and body temperatures do not drop as low. If you were to wake a true hibernator they would not survive because their body wouldn’t be able to bring their metabolism and temperature up quickly enough. Bears, however, will re-adjust their position to stay comfy, and may even raise their heads to check if they hear a noise, then fall back to sleep just fine.

Conservation

Despite their conservation status of “least concern”, their numbers in the wild are doing relatively well so most facilities do not breed brown or black bears. Their main threat is habitat loss and climate change. Their natural habitats are being reduced by human expansion into their territories and climate change threatens their survival by interrupting their hibernation – if it’s too warm they won’t want to settle down to sleep and will therefore lose the chance to shed excess weight and heal their wounds fully. When it comes to human conflict, wild bears typically have a 3 strike policy, meaning if a bear comes into contact with humans more than 3 times, they must be relocated into a facility or put down.

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Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

The bears that find a new home, like Mak, Oso, Russell and Claire, get to live happy lives with people looking after them. If you’d like to come and meet our bears, we actually have encounters through the winter. You can come see our sleepy ones in a ‘hibernating bear’ encounter now being offered daily!

Russell and Claire

Carnivores, Uncategorized

Russell and Claire are Alaskan Coastal Brown bears. They make up half of Wildlife Safari’s population of brown bears, and at 27 and 28 years old they are the old ladies of the group. Bears are one of few species that has a similar lifespan in captivity and in the wild – into their 30s. So the girl’s are getting close to the upper end on that life expectancy, but are still healthy, strong, and active.

Russel and Claire

Russell and Claire – Photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

Like most of the brown bears in captivity in the US, they were orphaned at a young age. They had, however, been through at least one winter with their mothers – long enough for them to easily slip into the hibernation routine. This is important, since it is something they learn, it isn’t built in to their instincts – which means most orphaned bears in captivity do not hibernate. This means they go without that healthy time to heal wounds and lose up to 14 percent of their body weight – leaving them vulnerable to obesity and related diseases. This is why Russell and Claire are so healthy – they hibernate for four months a year!

Russel relaxing after a swim

Russel relaxing after a swim – Photo courtesy of Sara Wheaton

The girls have very distinct personalities: Claire loves to sleep and is very into finding all kinds of weird and wonderful positions to sleep in for maximum comfort. Russell, on the other hand, loves to be out and exploring. She is also bold and confident – and has no issues nudging Claire into joining her for adventures.

These two LOVE their meat, as well as melons and pineapple – though they get lots of variety with every meal. As omnivores they would eat a variety of fruits and vegetables as they foraged, as well as any meat or easy prey they would come across.

Russel - photo courtesy of Sara Wheaton

Russel – photo courtesy of Sara Wheaton

Claire and Russel always brighten their keepers’ days, and we hope they brighten yours too!