Filling the Gaps: 274

In the fall of 2016, a bear with a distinctive light-colored patch of fur on its left shoulder was seen at Brooks River. The identity of this bear, at the time, was a mystery. It behaved like it knew its way around the falls and looked like a bear I should recognize.

The problem was I didn’t. So, I speculated. Based on the bear’s shoulder patch, I said it could be 469, a bear who is not often seen at Brooks River but became of interest to webcam viewers in 2013 as he dealt with a leg or foot injury.

Afterwards, the mystery bear was sometimes labeled as 469 in photos and videos.

I was never sure of this ID. The bear’s face, overall fur color, and body size didn’t match 469, but my suggestion fueled further speculation when the bear returned in 2017.

I now know my identification was incorrect. Katmai’s staff has since identified this bear as 274.

bear standing in water with gull in background

Bear 274 Overflow on September 27, 2017. NPS photo.

274 is a maturing adult male and is believed to be the offspring of 438 Flo. Unlike most brown bear cubs, he and a sibling remained with their mother through four summers (most mother bears in Katmai keep their cubs for two to three summers). This is the only example of a brown bear family in Katmai remaining together for four summers.

bear family with older cubs sitting on grassy island

438 (center right) sits with her two 3.5 year-old offspring in 2010. One of these cubs, perhaps the bear on the far left, is believed to be 274.

I never had the opportunity to watch 274 in person in the fall as he is an infrequent visitor, which is perhaps the reason I was mistaken originally. Bears have distinctive features that allow us to identify them across seasons and years. Yet, they can be notoriously difficult to recognize from early summer to fall. 274’s wide-set blond ears and shoulder patch should remain distinctive identifying features during future autumns. His current shoulder patch, it should be noted, wasn’t present in 2012, the last time he was positively identified in the fall.

bear walking in water next to grassy bank

Bear 274 in September 2012. NPS photo.

As he continues to grow, we could see 274 attaining a higher rank in the bear hierarchy. During the last few years he’s not been timid when using Brooks Falls, but he’s also not been large enough to occupy the most preferred fishing spots without being displaced regularly. If genes (which control his potential for growth, health, and lifespan) and fortune (which provide the opportunity for him to attain his physical potential) align, then 274 could become one of the more dominant bears at Brooks River.

brown bear sitting and looking towards camera

Bear 274 in July 2016.

8 thoughts on “Filling the Gaps: 274

  1. Thanks for the analysis Mike. It was the fall behavior that was throwing me off. That said, Patch Bear being 274 actually solves another mystery. I was surprised this July to see 274 and 503 playing on LR. But it that is really 274, then the two of them became well acquainted in the fall of 2016 and that play was just an extension of their 2016 relationship.
    Do you know whether markings like light fur patches are inherited in the same way light ears are? If so, perhaps either 469 or 480 could be 274’s father.
    Also, do you recall if the sex of Flo’s final two offspring was ever determined? They look so very much alike there at 3.5. Is it possible 274 has a doppelganger out there?

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    • Yes, the behavior you witnessed between 503 and the patched bear is consistent with 274, for now at least. Fur color in bears is genetically controlled like in humans, but I don’t know if specific fur patches like the ones on 469, 480, and 274 are hereditary. There is no evidence that 469 or 480 sired 274. However, both 469 and 480 would’ve been the right age and size to compete for the opportunity to mate with 438 in 2006.

      274’s sibling was also male. It’s possible this brother still roams Katmai and the Brooks River area.

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      • Thanks! It would be fascinating to know who 274’s father was, but I imagine we will probably never know. Eventually though, if enough of a tree can be built, we might be able to observe whether specific color markings are inherited.

        Interesting. Perhaps the brother will return one day. Regardless, having reared three adult offspring, 438 was a successful sow.

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  2. Thanks, Ranger Mike, for filling in these gaps!

    I never would’ve ID’d the fall bear as 274 — but of course, now that you’ve explained it, it makes total sense!

    I look forward to watching the next chapters in this bear’s story.

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  3. Also, I had a different kind of question about bears’ shoulder patches.

    Putting aside whether they might be heredity, is there some reason that bears develop them? A lot of bears (maybe especially male bears?) seem to have them.

    I was wondering if shoulder patches might be comparable to something like gray hair — or age spots — in humans?

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    • I’m unaware of any research on this subject, so I don’t know if there’s an answer. Since not all bears get them, even older bears (410, for example), then I’d be willing to speculate they aren’t equivalent to gray hair. 274 is also a little young for us to be calling him an old timer anyway. 😉

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