In my last post, I broke down an interaction between two mother bears, one of whom was particularly defensive. Bears though don’t always charge and threaten violence to make their point. As this video illustrates, bears communicate through body language to establish dominance and avoid conflict. (Warning: Long Video.)
In the video, 747 is the heftier, darker bear. 68 is the tall, lanky bear. Both are mature adult males, likely in the prime of their lives. As I see it, bear 747 comes out of this on top as he asserts his dominance over the newcomer, 68. This took some time, however. 68 didn’t exactly yield like most would upon the approach of 747.
As the video starts, 747 (left) immediately approaches the newcomer on the island. 68 subtly skirts 747, but continues his approach toward the falls. You can see that 747 is much bulkier than the newcomer, but the new bear is just as tall, if not taller.
When 747 turns his back on the new bear, 68 takes the opportunity to mark some grass (0:50). 68 is not acting submissive or yielding.
The new bear approaches 747. 747 stands and watches. At this point, the outcome is very much undecided (1:12).
After a little more posturing, 747 turns to mark the willow on the island. This is a bold display of dominance in front of 68. The newcomer though continues to cowboy walk away from 747, still not submissive but very focused on 747’s movements (2:00).
747 follows the exact same route on the island as 68, probably following the newcomer’s scent and leaving his own on the way (2:20). 68 postures more in the grass. 747 again marks the tree. This time for almost 30 seconds (3:18).
747 then goes to the grass where 68 just was and rubs it on his body. He seems to want to leave a scent trail everywhere his competitor has (4:05).
68 walks downriver. 747 follows. In the riffles, 747 catches up to him. Instead of fighting, the bears posture more. Here’s where 747 seems to assert his dominance more clearly. 68, instead of posturing further, stands in the riffles and watches 747 approach then walk away (5:00).
The video cuts to a moment a few minutes later when 68 makes his way back to the island. This draws 747’s attention and he approaches 68 again. 747’s ears remain upright and forward, a sign of dominance in this context. The new bear’s ears are oriented back against his head, a sign of defensiveness (6:40).
747 circles 68. 747 walks away and the newcomer stands and watches, indicating that 747 successfully asserted his dominance in the interaction. 747 then goes back to the island and marks the vegetation again (7:05). 68 continues to stand and watch. Winner: 747.
During encounters between adult male bears, the “winner” is the bear who ends the interaction, usually by walking away. This is exactly what 747 did. (Exceptions are when bears compete over a resource they want like food, a fishing spot, or access to a female. In those cases, the dominant bear stays where he wants, displacing the subordinate bear who usually moves away.)
Any time a new bear arrives at Brooks Falls, my interest piques. Newcomers are often wildcards. They may or may not know how to fish the falls and must weave their way into the river’s hierarchy. 68 was never identified at Brooks Falls in July. I didn’t recognize him when he arrived. He seemed to show some familiarity with the falls area and wasn’t particularly wary of other bears. When 747 saw the newcomer I thought, “This could get interesting.” It did, just in a non-violent way.
68 and 747 communicated their intentions clearly through posturing and marking vegetation. Throughout the entire video, these bears get very close to each other, but never make physical contact. Both want to hold high places in the hierarchy, because dominance confers many advantages. Through a continued, confident approach and more exaggerated posturing, 747 asserts his dominance over the newcomer. This is a classic, albeit lengthy, example of bears using body language to communicate their intentions, avoid physical conflict, and establish dominance.
For more information on Katmai’s bears, download the latest edition of Bears of Brooks River: A Guide to Their Identification, Lives, Identification, and Habits.