In anticipation of catching 4,500-calorie fish and chomping on their brains, skin, and vivid red flesh, the fat bears have started their return to the Brooks River in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve.
On Monday, wildlife webcam operators explore.org turned on the Brooks River cameras (aka “bear cams”), allowing people globally to stream the bears throughout the summer and into the early fall. Over the next few months, the in preparation for the harsh winter famine, .
Bear activity at the river when sockeye salmon journey upstream and attempt to leap over the Brooks River waterfall. Unfortunately for the fish, bears await as the salmon pool beneath this natural obstacle.
Many of these bears are now well known, if not internet famous, and this season promises to bring back individuals who have.
“There are so many good stories to look forward to,” Naomi Boak, the media ranger at Katmai National Park and Preserve, told Mashable over a staticky phone call. Boak is out in remote Katmai this summer, observing the bears.
Here’s what to watch out for on the bear cams in 2020.
The dominance of bear 856
Since 2011, bear 856 has been the most dominant bear of the Brooks River. This means he asserts himself over other bears, and is generally a tenacious intimidator. For example, bear 856 can exploit the best fishing spots in the river. Few dare to challenge him.
Yet bear 856 is aging (nearing 20 years old, the life expectancy of these bears) and younger bears may attempt to knock him off his throne, perhaps resulting in a violent skirmish or battle.
“To be atop the hierarchy for almost a decade is quite a long time,” Mike Fitz, the resident naturalist for explore.org and a former park ranger at Katmai, told Mashable. “Every year, I’ve wondered, is this the year he’s going to take a step back?”
One bear in particular, an animal Fitz identified as bear 68, may threaten 856’s dominance. Last year, the largest bear of the Brooks River — the aptly numbered bear 747 —. This established bear 68 as a formidable competitor. Will 68 challenge 856 this summer?
“I’m definitely going to be watching the hierarchy and how it ebbs and flows this year,” said Fitz.
“That’s a saga to watch,” added Boak.
Katmai National Park and Preserve is a remote Alaskan place. Most visitors arrive at Brooks Camp, where the Brooks River is located, via loud float planes that land on a glacial lake. Still, thousands of people come to see the bears each summer, requiring rangers to regularly manage crowds.
But this year, due to the, there will almost certainly be far fewer people, meaning dramatically quieter areas. “Noise levels will be reduced, and there won’t be as many planes coming in and out,” said Fitz.
This may have a significant impact on bear behavior, because some bears avoid people (and our boisterous activities). “If we don’t have as many visitors out here, will that change the bear behavior at all?” wondered Boak.
Bears that don’t usually visit the river, because of the presence of people, might now be encouraged to come fish this year or seek mates. It’s unknown how the summer will play out, but the Park Service will certainly be watching.
As the season unfolds, Boak looks forward to answering questions about the bears and their behavior on the live chats she’ll host on explore.org (particularly from young people or kids who may be tuning in during the pandemic summer of 2020, a time rife with canceled plans and social distancing). “I would love to have questions on the chat from a younger audience,” she said.
The return of the victors
In 2018, bear 409 “Beadnose” wasin the park’s annual Fat Bear Week contest. She had . But, curiously, , even though she’s a regular at the Brooks River. “She’s a bear that I expected to show up in 2019, but didn’t,” said Fitz. Will the former champion return this year?
Last year’sis veteran of the Brooks River, too. She has also returned to the river with cubs numerous times (most recently in 2017). Holly didn’t have cubs last year, which played a role in allowing her to grow so tremendously fat (she didn’t have to ). “I’m curious to see if she comes back with cubs,” said Boak. “She’s a good mom.”
Bear 503 has one of the most intriguing histories of all the fat bears — at least, the stories we know about.
In the summer of 2014, as a 1.5-year-old bear, his mother abandoned him, leaving bear 503 helpless — and likely to soon starve to death. But bear 503 did not die. He was, to the amazement of park rangers,, and has since grown into a large, healthy bear.
In the bear world, bigger often means dominant. Will bear 503 mature into a more aggressive, dominant bear?
“He is coming into his own,” said Fitz. “I’m wondering how he will climb up the hierarchy.”
Otis, bear 480, might be the most well-known bear in the world. He’s often sitting in the same place near the back corner of the falls, patiently waiting for fish to pass by. He’s a steadfast, reliable fixture on the bear cams. What’s more, he always becomes one of the river’s fattest bears.
Otis is older now (in his early 20s), and missing teeth. But he’s been a successful bear, even in his later years. “He’s an aging bear that still finds a way to make a living,” said Fitz.
Bear 480, nicknamed Otis, is the oldest male bear to use the Brooks River. At 22 years old, he is missing one or two of his canine teeth, forcing him to use his back molars when eating more than younger bears would.
— Katmai National Park (@KatmaiNPS) August 19, 2018
Amid a historic pandemic and revolutionary protests against deeply ingrained racism in America, viewers might find some relief, albeit temporary, by immersing themselves in nature’s finest: a wild bear patiently awaiting his livelihood in the deep Alaskan woods.
“I think the audience needs an Otis,” said Fitz.