What is Hyperphagia?

Side-by-side comparison of bear in late spring and late summer. Text reads, "747 June 13, 2107" "747 September 11, 2017"

Photos of bear 747 from late spring and late summer illustrate this bear’s substantial weight gain. Photos courtesy of Katmai National Park.

As we’re in the midst of Fat Bear Week, it’s a good time to ponder some of the mechanisms that allow bears to gain enough weight to survive hibernation. Bears get fat to survive and hyperphagia is how they do it. In the bearcam week in review for October 5, I briefly explained hyperphagia. Here it is in case you missed it.

Bears experience hunger in ways humans do not. They need to eat a year’s worth of food in six months or less to survive winter hibernation and the lean months of spring. To do this they eat A LOT, especially at this time of the year. 

In bears, hyperphagia is the period of excessive eating which takes place in late summer and fall. During this time black bears will eat 20,000 calories of food per day. Katmai’s brown bears can easily eat even more by catching calorie-rich salmon. Even though their calorie intake is extremely high, hyperphagic bears don’t feel full.

Satiety is the feeling of fullness after a meal. During hyperphagia, a bear’s body temporarily suppresses the normal mechanisms that balance food intake with weight gain. The body says, “You aren’t full. You don’t have enough fat reserves and need to eat more.” In short, hyperphagic bears don’t feel sated. This contrasts with the excessive eating of bears in June and July when they are eating a lot, but their bodies probably still respond to a feeling of fullness (which is sometimes hard to believe when you watch Otis or 747 catch fish after fish after fish). Hyperphagia, therefore, is a physiological state of bears in late summer and fall, as much as it is a behavior we can see. It’s how they prepare to survive the famine ahead.

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