A Mountain Lion Prowls the Neighborhood

There’s a place along the Skagit River where I like to wander. Upstream and downstream, the river is lined with rural home sites, but in between there’s a small pocket of undeveloped land where relatively few people go. Compared to the wild lands surrounding nearby Mount Baker and the North Cascades, it’s a small area and nothing close to what most people would consider wilderness. A regenerating clear cut sits on a terrace above the water. Below it, the river flows through a shallow S-curve and a swampy area occupies the annual floodplain. Filled with a willow thicket, it’s a good place to hide, for me as well as many other animals.

I’ve made it a habit to explore the animal trails leading in, out, and through the floodplain. In the spring, when the water table is higher, Pacific tree frogs spawn in ephemeral pools. In fall, a black bear visits the riverbank to scavenge spawned-out salmon. All year, elk use it to move between pasture. I frequently see sign left by coyotes, and if I look hard enough I might be able to find the tracks and scat of bobcats. While I rarely see the live animals, exploring their haunts helps keep me connected to the other creatures that I share this place with. I have a spot within this area where I like to sit and listen, but sometimes the most interesting observations happen upon my approach and exit into this little pocket of wilder land.

Following an elk-maintained path down to the riverbank, I exited the forest onto a muddy side-channel, now mostly dry after a long, arid summer. The exposed mud and sand of late summer offer some of the best tracking opportunities of the year. I slowed my pace, eager to see which animals had moved through the area recently. In the semi-firm mud, I stumbled upon a set of feline tracks. The tracks were large, as wide as the palm of my hand with four clear toe prints. There were no claw marks and the sizable metacarpal pads were distinctively three-lobed at the base. These belonged to a mountain lion.mountain lion tracks in mud. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.mountain lion track in mud. track point towards right. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.mountain lion tracks in sand. tracks point towards notebook at bottom of photo. Notebook is approximately 7 inches wide.Curious to know more about its travels here, I followed the tracks along the edge of the river. The cougar followed the same general path I would have to move upstream; it stuck to the mud and driftwood on the edge of the willows. From the additional tracks I was able to find, the cougar continued along the riverbank for another hundred yards before I lost the trail in the adjacent thicket.

Based on my completely unscientific survey of mammal sign in the surrounding few acres, elk seemed to be the most abundant large animal here. They left many sets of tracks that moved perpendicularly from the river and into the deep cover provided by the willows. Was the lion stalking potential prey, or was it simply wandering through? Could a kill site be nearby? My imagination ran with the possibilities, but the dense vegetation would effectively hide any further evidence of the lion’s travels—unless I was lucky enough to stumble upon more sign.

Discounting that possibility as too unlikely, I left the river by following a narrow elk trail lined with salmonberry. The trail led, in a convoluted manner, to my sit spot where I sat for while to jot a few written notes and listen to the forest.

forest scene with taller trees in background and many small shrubs in foreground

To head home, I took a different yet familiar route along more elk trails. By this time, I wasn’t expecting to find any more sign of cougars (the duff was too well compacted and dry to hold their paw prints), but when I reached a fork in the trail I found evidence that at least one cougar had visited the area several times. Under low hanging branches of western red-cedar were four large scrapes. Each scrape was oblong and about a foot in length. Each had a small pile of debris at the base and three were accompanied by scat.

photo of mountain lion scrape in forest litter. notebook at bottom left is about 7 inches wide.photo of mountain lion scrape in forest litter. notebook at bottom left is about 7 inches wide.

Mountain lions are reported to urinate when they make scrapes, but I couldn’t detect any strong urine odor despite kneeling down for a better waft. Evidently, the cougar had been here several times, but not that day and perhaps not even the past week. It looked to be eating well when it was here though. One pile of scat was sizable and reflective of a diet heavy with meat.

I found no other mountain lion sign that day, but the scrapes and tracks caused my mind to again race with the possibilities of its life here. Did it make a kill nearby? Or, was it merely using the heavy cover as a secure place to rest between meals? I left with more questions than answers. This mountain lion’s story might be missing some pages, but sometimes the finer details of a good tale are best left to the imagination.

The Difference Between Brown and Grizzly Bears

For my book on Brooks River’s bears and salmon, I find myself digging deep into natural history and ecology of brown bears. Sometimes I uncover research that challenges my long held assumptions. Take the difference between brown and grizzly bears, for example; something I often said was mostly based on geography and diet. As I wrote for Katmai’s website:

All grizzly bears are brown bears , but not all brown bears are grizzly bears. Grizzly bears and brown bears are the same species (Ursus arctos), but grizzly bears are currently considered to be a separate subspecies (U. a. horribilis). Due to a few morphological differences, Kodiak bears are also considered to be a distinct subspecies of brown bear (U. a. middendorffi), but are very similar to Katmai’s brown bears in diet and habits.

Even though grizzlies are considered to be a subspecies of brown bear, the difference between a grizzly bear and a brown bear is fairly arbitrary. In North America, brown bears are generally considered to be those of the species that have access to coastal food resources like salmon. Grizzly bears live further inland and typically do not have access to marine-derived food resources.

These geographic and dietary distinctions seem simple enough. However, there is little scientific evidence to support it. Both brown bears and grizzly bears exist, but the differences between them aren’t what I had long assumed.

bear grazing on vegetation with travertine and forest in background

A grizzly bear grazes on springtime vegetation near Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.

bear in water

A brown bear at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. (NPS Photo)

Although North American brown, grizzly, and Kodiak bears belong to the same species, Ursus arctos, bear taxonomy underwent many revisions before scientists reached this conclusion. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, taxonomists frequently lumped and split brown/grizzly bears into many different species and subspecies. The separation peaked in 1918 with the publication of C. Hart Merriam’s Review of the Grizzly and Big Brown Bears of North America in which Merriam proposed around 80 (not a typo) species and subspecies of North American brown bears. Taxonomists like Merriam relied on morphological characteristics that could be seen or observed to classify living and extinct organisms. Warm-blooded animals that have hair, breathe air, and produce milk for their offspring are mammals, but warm-blooded and air-breathing animals that lay eggs, have feathers and toothless beaks are birds. These are greatly simplified examples, I realize, and such tidy and clear distinctions aren’t necessarily common in nature. They often become more difficult to resolve at the genetic and species level, especially in cases of hybridization or when taxonomic distinctiveness is based on subtle physical differences.

Merriam’s nuanced classifications of brown and grizzly bears were based on differences in skull morphology and dentition, characteristics he examined painstaking detail. Among taxonomists, Merriam was a splitter. On southeast Alaska’s Admiralty Island alone, he classified five distinct species . In the Katmai region, Merriam described two species, Ursus gyas for the Alaska Peninsula and Ursus middendorffi for Kodiak Island , as well as others for bears living in the Cook Inlet area and on the Kenai Peninsula.

If you think his classifications of brown/grizzly bears was a little over the top, you’re not alone. Merriam foreshadowed opposition to his conclusions when he wrote in his Review, “The number of species here given will appear to many as preposterous . To all such I extend a cordial invitation to . . . see for themselves.” And they did. Most of the species or subspecies described by Merriam were later regarded as local variations or individual variants. While all of Merriam’s species have since been lumped together as U. arctos, in the mid 1980s as many as nine extant or extinct subspecies of U. arctos were recognized in North America , but the only names for North American brown bear subspecies in still widely used are U. a. horribilis, the grizzly bear, and U. a. middendorffi, the Kodiak bear. Recently, however, even these classifications have come under question.

In hindsight, it’s easy to scoff at Merriam’s conclusions. Could there really be dozens of brown bear species in North America? Within the methodologies and knowledge of his era, his results aren’t that far fetched. Little was known about the behavior, growth rates, ecology, and population dynamics of North American bears in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Given access to the same tools and information as modern taxonomists, Merriam may have discovered grizzly and brown bears can’t be so easily divided by differences in skull and tooth shape.

Ursus arctos is one of the most widely distributed mammal species on Earth. Historically, brown bears were found from the British Isles south to North Africa and east across northern and central Asia to Alaska and most of western and central North America. Two to three million years ago, they split from a common ancestor shared with black bears . The oldest brown bear fossils are from China and date to about 500,000 years ago. By 250,000 years ago, they spread to Europe. During the last 100,000 years of the Pleistocene, bears immigrated and emigrated across much of the northern hemisphere as climate and habitat dictated. When continental ice sheets advanced, available habitat shrunk and bears became isolated into separate populations. When the ice receded, bears dispersed into the new territory. Beginning around 70,000 years ago, the first brown bears moved into North America. While we know when and where bears lived and live from fossils and historical records, this doesn’t necessarily deduce the genetic relatedness of modern populations.

Phylogeography is a branch of phylogeny, the evolution of an organism or group of related species or populations. As such, phylogeography traces the distribution of genetic variation through time and space. In this regard, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is especially useful to track female ancestry. MtDNA  resides in the mitochondrion, a cell’s powerhouse, and is inherited from the mother only, unlike nuclear DNA which is a recombination of genes from both parents. According to mtDNA analysis, there is no divide between brown and grizzly bears based on an animal’s relationship to the coast or marine food sources, nor does it support the status of U. a. horribilis or U. a. middendorffi or any other historical subspecies in North America. The only historic classification that holds is at the species level—Ursus arctos. Instead, matrilineal ancestry suggests brown bears in North America fall into three main clades.

  • Mainland Alaska, Kodiak Archipelago, and northwest Canada.
  • ABC Islands (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) in southeast Alaska.
  • Southwestern Canada (Alberta, British Columbia) and the lower 48 States.

Clades are groups of organisms evolved from a common ancestor and consequently share a genetic relationship. The three North American clades, as well as others in Europe and Asia, are believed to be descended from brown bears living in isolated populations in Asia during the late Pleistocene . Since then, the mtDNA has remained geographically separated due to the tendency of female brown bears to be homebodies. Female brown bears are philopatric. They tend to remain near or have partly overlapping home ranges with their mother and do not rapidly invade areas already occupied by other brown bears . This can prevent or at least greatly slow mtDNA from mixing into other bear populations, even long after significant barriers like ice sheets have disappeared.

screen capture of Earth with clades of bears outlined.

Approximate range of brown bear clades in North America based on mtDNA. Different clades are represented by horizontal and vertical lines. The solid red circle marks the location of brown bears on the ABC islands.

Bears on the ABC Islands are the most genetically distinct of all Ursus arctos. Their mtDNA aligns them more closely to polar bears than to other brown bears , a genetic uniqueness most likely resulting from interbreeding with a small number of isolated polar bears at the end of the last ice age. Since then, female brown bears on the islands have not spread their polar bear genes to the mainland. Bears in British Columbia, Alberta, and into the lower 48 represent another lineage who arrived in Alaska around the same time as the ancestors of the ABC bears. During a warm interglacial period, some of these bears moved south into the mid continent before the ice advanced again and sealed them off from their brethren to the north.

All other brown bears in northwest Canada and Alaska, including those on Kodiak, belong to a clade that dispersed from Asia in two separate waves. Those in northwest Canada arrived first, perhaps as early as 33,000 years ago. Bears now occupying mainland Alaska represent the last pulse of ursine migrants onto the continent, arriving just before rising sea levels flooded the Bering Strait and closed the land bridge between Asia and North America. Excluding the ABC islands, all Alaskan brown bears belong to this pedigree, which stretches from northwestern Canada and Alaska west across Russia and into Europe and includes most of the world’s brown bears.

The results from mtDNA only convey information about the maternal line, however. MtDNA cannot trace genes spread exclusively by male brown bears, so it underrepresents the role of males in gene flow. Male brown bears have larger home ranges and disperse away from their mother’s home range more readily than females, especially during their first few years of independence. Males do carry one important bit of DNA that females don’t—the Y chromosome. Like mtDNA, it is only inherited from one parent, but unlike mtDNA it can only be passed from father to son, making the Y chromosome an important marker to trace paternal gene flow and diversity.

While mtDNA shows particularly strong clade differentiation  across the entire range of Ursus arctos, geographic variation in the Y chromosome of brown bears is much shallower . According to analysis of the Y chromosome, no deep genetic or geographical divergences could be found from bears in Eurasia or North America. Brown bears on the ABC islands and mainland Alaska, for example, share closely related haplotypes (a group of genes inherited from a single parent ) found in the Y chromosome. Even brown bears from populations as separate as Norway and the ABC islands have been reported to carry highly similar Y chromosomes . Male genes, therefore, flow across clades.

infographic showing hypothetical inheritance of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome through three generations of bears.

Within mammals, mitochondrial DNA can only be inherited through the maternal line. The Y chromosome is only passed from father to son. MtDNA tends to stay within genetically related clades because female bears are philopatric. Male bears, due to their inclination to disperse farther and have larger home ranges than females, can spread Y chromosomes over bigger areas. Unlike nuclear DNA, neither mtDNA nor the Y chromosome are a mix of maternal and paternal genes.

This isn’t to imply male bears from the Yukon immigrate to Europe or vice versa, just that males are more apt to wander and set up home ranges well away from their mother. If female brown bears, due to their philopatry, differentiate a population’s genetics over time, then male bears homogenize it. In other words, female brown bears like to stay in familiar terrain, but males often spread their seed far and wide.

With evidence of geographically isolated clades through mtDNA but not in the Y chromosome—can we still divide brown bears into biologically significant units? Even though genetic research adds another dimension to our understanding of wildlife, morphology remains an important way to differentiate species, and subspecies don’t necessarily need to be from separate or unique ancestry to be worth protecting. Grizzly and brown bears still exist, just not along a clean geographic and dietary divide. Where we draw the line is less important than the overall conservation of bears. Populations of brown bears—whether they are from Katmai, Kodiak, or Yellowstone—remain ecologically and culturally special no matter their genetic distinctiveness. Bears in Yellowstone are geographically and (at least currently) genetically separated from other “grizzlies.” Kodiak bears aren’t genetically distinct enough to justify them as a separate clade even though they have been isolated from mainland bears for approximately 12,000 years. Hypothetically speaking, if bears are extirpated from Kodiak or Yellowstone then they won’t be coming back and a valuable repository of genetic diversity will be lost forever.

The line between a brown bear and a grizzly, as I used to define it, was always tenuous at best. (Should grizzlies in interior Washington, British Columbia, and Idaho—who may have fed on salmon before runs in the Columbia and Snake watersheds collapsed—be considered brown bears?) Now through DNA analysis we know Ursus arctos cannot be so arbitrarily split based on their geographical closeness to the ocean. It’s still ok to say grizzly, Kodiak, or brown bear—the names can still be incredibly powerful and useful—but maybe the only truly accurate name for them is Ursus arctos.

References:

Bidon, T. , et al. Brown and polar bear Y chromosomes reveal extensive male-biased gene flow within brother lineages. Mol. Biol. Evol. 2014. 31(6): 1353-1363.

Davidson, J., et al. Late-Quaternary biogeographic scenarios for the brown bear (Ursus arctos), a wild mammal model species. Quaternary Science Reviews. 2011. 30:418-430.

Rausch, R. L. Geographic Variation in size in North American brown bears, Ursus arctos L., as indicated by condylobasal length. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 1963. 41(1): 33-45.

Schwartz, C.C. et al. “Grizzly Bear,” in Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. 2nd Edition. Editors Feldhamer, George A., Bruce C. Thompson, and Joseph A. Chapman. John Hopkins University Press. 2003.

Talbot S. L., et al. Genetic characterization of brown bears on the Kodiak Archipelago. Final Report to Kodiak National Wildife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006.

Waits L. P., et al. “Genetics of the bears of the world.” In Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Compiled by Christopher Servheen, Stephen Herrero, and Bernard Peyton. IUCN/SSC. 1999.

Waits, L. P., et al. Mitochondrial DNA Phylogeography of the North American Brown Bear and Implications for Conservation. Conservation Biology. 1998. 12(2): 408-417.

 

Drivers of Hibernation

Brown and black bears hibernate to avoid winter famine. For five to seven months, they do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate, a strategy quite unlike other mammalian hibernators. Chipmunks, for example, cache food to eat in between bouts of torpor. Marmots and arctic ground squirrels don’t eat during winter and survive off of their fat stores like bears, but they activate their metabolism periodically to wake and urinate.

I recently spent about 40 hours reviewing studies related to hibernation and denning in brown bears for a chapter in my book on Brooks River’s bears and salmon, which reminded me just how remarkable this process is. While in the den, bears spend about 98% of their time not moving. Their heart rate declines dramatically from 50-60 beats per minute during summer to 10-20 per minute in hibernation. During this time, they hardly breathe, taking 1.5 breaths per minute on average. Their body temperature drops several degrees entering them into a state of hypothermia. Finally, the metabolic rate of a hibernating bear is 70-75% less than its summer peak. To survive, bears subsist on their body fat, catabolizing it into energy and water.

brown bear sitting on rock surrounded by water

All brown bears, like this adult male known as 89 Backpack, get fat to survive.

Despite their lack of physical activity, hibernating bears maintain muscle strength and bone health. Even if immobilization didn’t cause starvation, osteoporosis, and atrophy in people, we would die of dehydration if placed in an equivalent situation. Hibernating bears, however, are nearly completely self-supporting. The only input they need from the outside world during hibernation is oxygen.

The physiology of bear hibernation is complicated and not fully understood. Scientists are still elucidating basic details about this remarkable process. For example, what causes bears to enter and exit the den? How long do bears need to switch their metabolism from to hibernating mode? As it turns out, the switch is a long process.

Researchers in Sweden used implanted heart rate monitors and GPS-enabled tracking collars on fourteen brown bears. The devices recorded the movement, heart rate, heart rate variability, and body temperature as well as ambient temperature and snow depth. The results, published last year in “Drivers of hibernation in the brown bear,” are insightful because it allowed the researchers to develop correlations between the variables that drive and trigger hibernation.

In fall, well before hibernation begins, body temperature and heart rate of bears began to decrease. Heart rate started to slow, on average, 24 days before den entry, and body temperature began to drop 13 days before den entry. Overall activity lessened 25 days before entry, but metabolic activity declined steeply just as the bears entered their dens. It took an additional 20 days after for heart rate and metabolic activity to bottom out.

The transition back to a more active physiology started long before bears left their dens. Heart and metabolic rate began to rise one month and 20 days, respectively, before den exit. Body temperature began to rise even earlier, a full two months before den exit when winter still locked the landscape in ice and snow. All bears left the den when their body temperature was 36.7˚C (98˚F) ± 0.15 °C, the active-state body temperature for brown bears. As the researchers note, the narrow temperature range at this time suggests bears exit the den when their body temperature reaches a specific point. Body temperature and metabolic rate stabilized 10 and 15 days, respectively, after den exit, but heart rate didn’t stabilize for another month.

Graph that shows the timing of several variables affecting the start and end of hibernation in bears.

These graphs chart the relationship between physiological parameters of brown bears in Sweden. Den entry (left column) and exit (right column) are indicated by time zero (the green vertical line) to determine the sequence of physiological events. SDANN is the standard deviation of heart rate variability over five minute intervals. It was used a proxy measure of metabolic activity. A red line denotes when a variable was decreasing, while a blue line indicates when a variable was increasing, with the number of days from the entry/exit indicated. From Drivers of Hibernation in the Brown Bear and reposted under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International License.

Even though the bears’ physiology initiates the ultimate beginning and end of hibernation, climate plays a role in this process too. Changes to body temperature before den entry were affected by ambient air temperature, but bears largely relied upon a physiologic slowdown to cool themselves. In spring, bears left the den when the weather was right, exiting when air temperature rose to above 3.7˚C ± 1.5 ˚C (38.7˚F ± 2.7˚F).  Some biologists have suggested that food availability drives the timing of den entry, but this study did not attempt to test the hypothesis.

As a survival strategy, bear hibernation is remarkably efficient, and no other animal attains the same physiologic feats. Small mammal hibernators wake to pee; bears don’t even need to do that. Changing from an active metabolism to one of hibernation and back again takes a lot of time. If you are fortunate enough to see a bear in the middle of fall or the middle of spring, that bear is likely living in a transitional body equipped to handle two worlds—one with food and one without.