An Old Bear’s Teeth

480 Otis is currently the oldest adult male bear known to use Brooks River. First identified in 2001, a conservative age estimate places him in his early twenties. This bear is a skilled and patient angler who often sits for hours in Brooks River. When he catches salmon though, a common ailment of bears his age is noticeable.

bear in water biting salmon with side of his mouth

480 Otis often bites the tails off of salmon by utilizing his molars, a method that younger bears with all their canine teeth do not use.

In 2013, I first took note of the peculiar manner in which Otis eats his salmon. Unlike young bears with relatively sharp canine teeth and incisors, Otis sometimes seems to struggle with grasping and biting through the tough skin of sockeye salmon. He seemed to use his molars much more than younger bears to bite into salmon. After watching closely through binoculars, I eventually saw why. Otis is missing canine teeth.

Notice how he seems to have difficultly chewing his food.

Otis’ lower left canine appears to be completely missing. A nub of his upper right canine may still exist, but it is so small to be nearly useless. He may also have missing or worn incisors, premolars, and molars. This affects his ability to grasp and bite into salmon.

Even when salmon are so abundant that most bears high-grade their fish—eating the fattiest parts like the skin, brain, and eggs and discarding the rest of the carcass—Otis eats higher proportions of the whole fish, probably because his worn and missing teeth prevent him from handling the fish as dexterously as his younger competitors.

Throughout their lives, brown bears suffer from broken bones, disease, wounds, and many other ailments. As they age, the rigors of their diet and lifestyle wear on their teeth. Without access to a dentist, bears must tolerate broken and worn teeth as well as deep cavities and even abscessed teeth, conditions which may ultimately reduce their fitness and survival.

480 Otis is one of the most experienced bears at Brooks River. Despite his less than healthy teeth, he continues to fish quite successfully (incredibly, he once caught and ate 44 fish in about six hours!) to gain the calories needed to survive the lean months of winter and spring.

fat bear sitting in water in front of rock wall

 

8 thoughts on “An Old Bear’s Teeth

  1. I’ve noticed Otis drinking more water while he eats or after a fish. I wonder if this is to help digest the larger pieces of fish and also to even swallow them I am worried that this will largely contribute to Otis passing away in the near future

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    • I noticed that as well. I wondered if his teeth were bothering him to cause him to
      rinse his mouth and to drink more. I’ve seen him do it at other times but this one particular
      video it seemed like he was struggling.
      Mike, I LOVED these videos of Otis so much. I am always searching for good
      quality videos and photos of Otis. I care for many of the bears but Otis is in my heart to stay! I hope you are doing well. JeanneB

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  2. We had a 34 year old horse, during his last year with us the vet said that old Goldie was having trouble converting calories into weight, he said it was age related… Also, because he is eating more of the fish (not high grading as he did when he was younger and had better teeth) he is getting full faster with out as many calories. I just adore 480, it is tough to see him grow old, but this just shows what a successful bear he is.

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  3. Thanks again for the detailed information. I knew he was missing teeth, but did not realize the other issues with his molars. How old would you say Otis is in your video the “Hungry Bear” I love it

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  4. Oh Mike thank you so much for the blog on Otis. He truly is the King of Katmai – even if younger bears, like Chunk, try to take the title of most dominant bear —- Otis is still King. I realized he had problems with his teeth but you really explained how severe it really is. Yet, he manages a way to pack on those pounds in spite of it.

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  5. Thank you Mike Fitz. I always appreciate your writings and your willingness to share your knowledge of these great bears. The new ranger is nice and learning but is no where close to what you know of the bears. I really miss your talks at the falls. I learned so much from you. I’ve been watching since 2013 and it got me through breast cancer. Thank you for all your time and energy.

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