There is no average bear

In many ways, we can stereotype bears based on their age, sex, and reproductive status. While watching bears and even interacting with bears, certain stereotypes are useful. They help us begin to understand and explain a wide spectrum of behavior exhibited by a group of intelligent animals.

To stereotype a group of bears, adult males who rank at or near the top of the hierarchy are probably the least likely to act like a kid. They are the least likely to play or show overt curiosity towards new things. For most of bearcam’s history (2012-present) we’ve watched bears like 856, 747, and 814 dominate the falls through their size and assertiveness. These bears showed little interest in other bears except when establishing or reaffirming their dominance, stealing fish (especially 814 Lurch), appropriating preferred fishing spots, or when seeking a mate. Their behavior framed (biased?) our expectations of bears at the top of the hierarchy. They acted like stereotypical dominant males, and in their own ways, average bears.

But this logic can only take us so far, because there are no average bears.

This past July 32 Chunk displaced 856 as the most dominant bear at Brooks River. Chunk is approximately 12-13 years old and is perhaps the largest bear to use the river regularly this summer. Much of his behavior, especially early in Brooks River’s salmon run, is typical of a big dominant male. Not only did he displace other bears, he also wasn’t successfully challenged for food or fishing spots.

Notice how 856 quickly vacates the jacuzzi and doesn’t even attempt to challenge 32 Chunk.

Initially, 32 Chunk fit our expectations of a dominant male, but over the past two weeks or more bearcam has captured Chunk play fighting with another large, and older adult male, 755 Scare D Bear, as well as scavenging fish from him.

Just what is going on? Has Brooks Falls gone topsy-turvy in the wake of this summer’s hierarchy shift? Or this something more akin to the peculiarities of individual bear behavior during a summer when salmon are plentiful?

In July especially, Chunk fit the stereotype of a dominant adult male—challenging and displacing other bears, marking trees and cowboy walking in full view of other large males, and courting females. Since then, he’s behaved in ways that do not fit the dominant male stereotype—waiting patiently downstream of 755 for scraps of fish (a behavior more akin to scavenging than begging) and even initiating prolonged play fights with 755.

Play among adult male bears in their early teens is uncommon, but not unprecedented. I’ve previously wondered if bears outgrow play, and my personal observations suggest the frequency of play decreases as bears age. (I’m more surprised by 755 Scare D Bear’s willingness to play-fight, something I’ve never witnessed from him, than from 32’s).

Chunk’s play behavior separates him from bear 856 who was the most dominant bear seen through the entire history of bearcam until this summer. 856, like 24 BB before him, was hyper-dominant. As far as I know, this term has never been formally described in the scientific literature about bears. Tamara Olson, one of Katmai’s former bear biologists, introduced me to it. As I understand the term, hyper-dominance in bears is a willingness to continuously assert dominance over other competitors, giving them no slack, no chances to gain an edge. 856 became the river’s most dominant animal in 2011, when he was about the same age as Chunk is now. Once 856 became more dominant than 814 Lurch, for example, he repeatedly approached and displaced Lurch, perhaps in an effort to remind his large competitor, “Don’t challenge me or infringe on my space.”

Perhaps a lack of other large males who can challenge Chunk has allowed him to exhibit more playful and less hyper-dominant behavior. The relatively high abundance of salmon at Brooks River this summer also influences how bears interact with each other. To add another stereotype to the mix, bears are generally more playful and more tolerant of each other when they are well fed.

Because of his rank at the top of the hierarchy, we expect Chunk to behave like more like 856 than a youthful subadult. However, no biological edict commands Chunk to fit our expectations. His bimodal behavior is uncommon among adult male bears of his rank. Yet, Chunk can play-fight with other bears and still maintain an exceptionally high rank in the hierarchy.

The average bear is an amalgam of our observations and conclusions, created to help us better understand the lives of bears. No single bear will ever fit this role completely. Chunk can be both playful and dominant. He is no anomaly, because the average bear doesn’t exist.

12 thoughts on “There is no average bear

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on bear dominance and the behavior of 32 & 755. I’ve been intrigued by their interactions this summer~ definitely a highlight of 2017.

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  2. After watching the cams since 2012, there is rarely a day that I don’t think to myself, “that’s interesting.” But some days, something really different or special happens and I think, “Wow! THAT’S really interesting!” No average bear, indeed!

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  3. Hi Mike, thanks for the insights! I wonder if adult females also play with other adult bears? From the cams I’ve seen sows playing with their cubs as well as subadult female, ie. 719, playing with their peers, but I have yet to see an adult female playing with another adult bear.

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    • Excluding the relationship with their cubs, young adult females seem to play even less than young adult males according to the interactions I recorded at Brooks Falls from 2011 and 2013-2016. I noted a only few instances of adult female bears playing with males (for example 128 and 32 on June 29, 2013 and again on June 25, 2014) and those instances could be associated with courting behavior. I recorded no play-fights between two young adult females. Young adult male bears were far more likely to engage in play-fights.

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  4. Thank you Mike..think the reason for watching the Bears of Brooks River year after year and to be excited for every next season is: “There is no average bear”

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  5. Pingback: Bear Cam Week in Review August 26 | Explore

    • That’s an interesting thought as several large males have backed down to 128 when she’s been defensive. However, 128 isn’t challenging other bears for access to food, fishing spots, or mates. She’s not trying to appropriate anything from them, only defend her cubs. That’s a big difference between her behavior and large adult males. Therefore, I describe 128 as extra defensive but not necessarily hyper-dominant.

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