Strut Your Stuff

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.

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747 (left) approaches 68 on the island downstream of Brooks Falls.

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.

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After a brief do-si-do, 68 (left) marks grass while 747 does the same.

The new bear approaches 747. 747 stands and watches. At this point, the outcome is very much undecided (1:12).

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68 (left) approaches 747.

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).

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747 marks a willow tree while 68 postures nearby.

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).

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747 says, “This is my turf.”

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).

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747 (center) marks the grass where 68 had just walked.

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).

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747 pursues 68 downstream.

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).

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747 (left) directly approaches 68 one last time. Note the bears’ ears. 747’s are pitched forward like he is not intimidated by 68.

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.

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747 is one of the largest and most dominant bears at Brooks River.

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.

10 thoughts on “Strut Your Stuff

  1. Great piece, I started watching well after July but was watching before “Mystery Bear” was IDed as 68. He obviously had a good summer, he was very imposing at the far pool. 747 fished in the Jacuzzi and at the log while 68 was at falls, so the bulked up 68 had an upgraded position in the hierarchy. It was also cool to see 68 play fight with 151 for over 4 minutes up river.

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    • 68 was interesting to watch this year. He’s certainly large enough to displace most bears at the falls. Only the largest bears seem like they can challenge him. Any bear that doesn’t immediately yield to 747 has moxie.

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  2. I think 747 kept his dominance all season vis a vis all other bears except 856. If he was in the jacuzzi, that’s what he preferred as well in the pool by the log. Those are spots he prefers. Only 856 could make him move from a favorite spot (and crazy mom 128 Grazer who, though much smaller, was not worth the risk of tangling with even if the big males could “win” in a conflict with her).

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    • Baring some unforeseen injury or illness, 747 and 856 will likely remain at the top of the falls hierarchy for a while, but 32’s size and disposition could place him a good position to rise toward the top of the hierarchy in the next few years.

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  3. I was wondering if a bear’s familiarity with a location (747 and Brooks Falls) can lead them to behave in a more dominant manner in that known location. This is a great video demonstrating the posturing between 747 and the new bear. I am curious as to why they didn’t get physical with each other, as I have seen when bears are establishing position in the falls. I imagine a bear has a great memory and sense of smell for other potentially dominate bears and perhaps fighting escalates only when needed. I also am curious how a bear learns to “cowboy walk”? Is it just a male behavior? Cubs could learn from a mother but if only the males “cowboy walk”, how do they learn the behavior? Thanks for sharing your wonderful observations!!!

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    • I was wondering if a bear’s familiarity with a location (747 and Brooks Falls) can lead them to behave in a more dominant manner in that known location.

      That’s possible in my estimation. Unless two male bears are pursuing the same female, there wouldn’t be much of a need for them to confront one another away from a concentrated food source.

      I am curious as to why they didn’t get physical with each other, as I have seen when bears are establishing position in the falls. I imagine a bear has a great memory and sense of smell for other potentially dominate bears and perhaps fighting escalates only when needed.

      Yes, fighting only occurs when needed. Most encounters between bears, even the biggest adult males end without physical contact. Even if they do make contact, it’s usually brief. Knock-down, drag-out fights are relatively rare. Fights are usually avoided because each bear risks injury even though they are built to withstand pretty severe punishment. I have no doubt they recognize each other through smell, hence 747’s “need” to walk over almost all the grass the newcomer did. When bears encounter each other, then next encounter is usually less combative. They don’t need to waste energy rehashing the same issue, since the previous encounter usually determined who was subordinate or dominant.

      I also am curious how a bear learns to “cowboy walk”? Is it just a male behavior? Cubs could learn from a mother but if only the males “cowboy walk”, how do they learn the behavior?

      “Cowboy walking” appears to be an innate behavior, just like yawning or excess salivation as a sign of stress. Unlike yawing or excess salivation, however, cowboy walking seems restricted to adult male bears. I’ve never seen a female bear do it. One of the lower river bearcams recently captured a female cub walking in a way that some viewers described as cowboy walking, but the cub’s gait didn’t look quite right for it to be that. Plus, I’ve also never seen cubs cowboy.

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