All about Bears!

Carnivores

 

Wildlife Safari has 4 brown bears; Mak, Oso, Russell, and Claire. While all these bears are apart of the brown bear species, they are actually distinct subspecies; Mak and Oso are grizzly bears, where as Russell and Claire are Alaskan coastal brown bears. In total, there are 8 sub-species of brown bear and they are the most widely distributed of all bears species. They can be found in tundra, forests, mountain ranges, or coastlines depending on the subspecies. They range throughout North America and Northern Eurasia, including Russia, central Asia, China, Canada, the United States, and Scandinavia. Historically the grizzly’s bear range covered much of North America from the mid-plains westward to California and from central Mexico north throughout Alaska and Canada. However, currently, only 1% of grizzly bears original range in the contiguous United States remains. In fact, 95% of the brown bear population in the United States can be found in Alaska.

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Russell and Claire during Party at Bear Island

 We also have 3 American black bears at the park, Takoda, Chochmo, and Donna. Unlike brown bears, black bears are only found in North America, and they are the continent’s smallest and most widely-distributed bear species. Currently, American black bears can be found throughout forested mountainous areas from the Appalachian Mountains in the east; to the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Cascades to the west; south to Mexico; and all the way north throughout Canada and Alaska; and many places in between. Despite being named “brown bears” and “black bears,” color is never an indicator of either species. Both species can range from almost white, to blonde, to pure black, and many color phases in between depending on age, sex, and even the season. Even our black bears don’t look alike; Takoda is referred to as a Cinnamon black bear because he has a reddish-brown coat of fur, reminiscent of the spice–hence the name. Generally, black bears can be distinguished from brown bears by their smaller size, their less concave skull profiles, shorter claws, and the lack of a shoulder hump.

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Chochmo: one of our North America black bears takes a swim!

Brown and black bears are omnivorous animals and will eat almost anything. In fact, brown bears are one of the most omnivorous animals in the world and have been recorded consuming the greatest variety of foods of any bear. However, both bears’ diets are extremely variable throughout the year and depend on the season, area, and on opportunity. The vast majority of their diet– as much as 80%!–consists of vegetation, such as roots, grasses, and fruits. At Wildlife Safari, apples are a favorite among our brown bears. Despite their large sizes, both bears will eat insects and grubs when they can get them. For example, brown bears in Yellowstone eat an enormous number of army cutworm moths during the summer, sometimes consuming as many as 40,000 moths in a single day! And they can get up to half of their annual caloric intake from these insects. When available, brown and black bears will also feast on spawning trout and salmon. Most bears don’t actively hunt, but will scavenge off dead animals or prey killed by other predators.

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Oso enjoying a section of ribcage

It is a common misconception that bears hibernate during winter. While bears do slow down their metabolism during the winter, they are not true hibernators. Black and brown bears go into a deep sleep during the winter months, known as torpor. During true hibernation, the animals will not wake up when they hear a loud noise or even if they are moved or touched. While in torpor, the animal can wake up quickly and easily. During true hibernation, the animal has a low body temperature, slow breathing and heart rate, and low metabolic rate. During the bear’s torpor, their breathing rate, heart rate, and metabolic rate are low, but their body temperature remains relatively high. Animals undergo torpor, or hibernation, as a way to to conserve energy, survive when food is scarce, and minimize their need to face the elements in the cold winter months. To prepare for hibernation, bears need to eat a lot during the fall to store up body fat. During the months before torpor, bears undergo hyperphagia and can eat up to 90 pounds of food every day, and put on up to 3 pounds of weight each day. Bears can weight twice as much before hibernation as it will in the spring. And but the time torpor is over, bears can lose 15-20% of their body weight.

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Claire during the hibernating bear encounter (offered during winter months)

Mak, Oso, Claire, Russell, Takoda, Chcochmo, and Donna are intelligent, curious, charismatic, lovable animals–not just animals that deserve caution when hiking.

 

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Polar Bear-Grizzly Bear Hybrids

Carnivores

The cross breeding of species to create hybrids has been done throughout human history. In recent years, however, hybrids have been popping up in the wild with no direct human influence. A hybrid is two individuals of different species brought together while under human care to create an offspring that is a mix of both parents. Some of the commonly known hybrids are the mule, a cross between a horse and donkey, and the liger, a cross between a lion and tiger. These are species who are either domestic animals or whose home ranges are far apart and would never interact without human intervention. 

In recent years, wild hybrids have been found. These hybrids were not created in human captivity and have attracted both the public and scientific interest. One of these wild born hybrids caught the public interest in 2006 when a hunter shot what he assumed was a polar bear in Banks Harbor, Canada. This bear had the creamy fur coloring found on polar bears. A closer inspection of the bear revealed the bear had features of a grizzly bear, including the hump on the back, long claws, and a grizzly bear head shape. 

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Polar-grizzly hybrid

 

DNA samples were sent in to investigate. The bear was found to be a first generation hybrid, with a polar bear mother and a grizzly bear father. Before this case, it was known that these two species could hybridize as they had done so in captivity. This bear became the first documented case of a polar bear-grizzly bear hybrid found in the wild. Since the discovery of this bear, 8 other bears have been found to be hybrids. Of these 8 bears, 4 are first generation hybrids and 4 are the offspring of a hybrid and a grizzly bear. 

What does this mean for the two species? 

The hybridization of these two species could mean one of two things for these species. First, is that this is a random occurrences.The second is that this is the foretelling of a breakdown of species barriers and mating between these species will become commonplace. 

Both are possible outcomes and only time will tell which will be the true outcome. Both of these results have occurred in the wild. With the first, the hybrids are not as successful at surviving in their range as their parent species. The hybrids still pop up in the wild but due to the hybridization lack something that is essential to their survival in the wild.

For breakdown of species barriers the offspring are for one reason or another more successful at surviving in their home range than either of their parents. For this to occur the offspring must be able to produce offspring of their own. It is unusually for hybrids to be able to reproduce but there are cases where they do so successfully. Since second generation hybrids have been found in the wild, we know that the polar bear-grizzly bear hybrids are able to reproduce. This could result in genetic material entering the population that has a negative impact on the population.

These two species also only split on the evolutionary tree a mere 150,000 years ago. So their genetic material is very similar and the males will be attracted to females of both species. The hybridization between these two bears has the potential to lead to the creation of a new species of bears. So even as the parent species dies of there is the creation of  a new species. Either way there is much we can learn from the hybrid offspring of these bears.

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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!

Rise and Shine!

Behind the Scenes, Carnivores, Uncategorized

Spring is here and the bears at Wildlife Safari have started venturing out and stretching their legs after a long four months of hibernation. Although still a little sleepy, the bears are looking happy and healthy, having lost a substantial amount of weight during their time of rest.

One of the black bears surrounded by snacks and enrichment

One of the black bears, Chochmo surrounded by snacks and enrichment – photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

When the bears first get up, they ease into eating again, starting on small amounts of simple foods and slowly increasing as summer approaches.

The black bears typically hibernate for longer than the brown bears, but are also starting to emerge for the spring.

Grizzly brothers, Mak and Oso, enjoying the spring sunshine - photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

Grizzly brothers, Mak and Oso, enjoying the spring sunshine – photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

Sunshine adventures

Little Boy on sunshine adventures – photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

In the wild, spring is the time when cubs are around, emerging from their dens with their mothers for the first time. Bears will give birth while hibernating, with cubs nursing on their snoozing mother through the winter. By the time spring rolls around, cubs are big enough to explore and play while their mothers find food.

This may seem like a good way to raise small young, and it is not just good timing that allows them to give birth during hibernation. Bears can actually delay implantation of fertilized eggs to make sure their pregnancy goes through these resting months. “Delayed implantation is a really cool feature of the bear reproductive cycle,” says Melissa Fox, primary bear trainer at Wildlife Safari. “Bears will typically mate in late spring, but the fertilized egg won’t attach to the uterine wall until fall, and only if the female has gained enough weight to sustain her – typically around 150lbs.” If the female does not gain that weight, the pregnancy will be terminated. This pregnancy will only last 2 months, giving the little cubs time to grow before the end of the hibernation period. Cubs are born tiny and hairless, though they are much bigger and stronger when they leave the den. “They are born early so they can switch to mammary nourishment (milk) sooner,” explains Fox. “It’s more energy efficient.”

Takoda the black bear saying hello to his keepers

Little Girl, the black bear saying hello to her keepers – photo courtesy of Melissa Fox

As their primary, Fox spends a lot of time with both the brown and black bears. “I love how intelligent and playful they are,” she says. “It makes them so much fun to work with.”

Once they are awake and ready to eat, bears are mostly foragers – eating whatever is around. While they do eat meat, they won’t generally hunt, preferring to eat prey that another animal has caught, although they will also fish.

The black bears love their ponds

The black bears love their ponds – photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

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Photo courtesy of Melissa Fox

Big Bear encounters have started, so if you haven’t met our brown bears, now is the perfect time to come and see them!