Bear Update: 

Berry feeding anguish

Bear Researcher

An adult female black bear slumps onto an old growth cedar stump. Pain rips through her right shoulder. She struggles in 31 degree Celsius heat as the thermal sponge of black pelage anchors her every movement.

Rolling slightly onto her left side, heavy, aggressive panting forces hot air from her lungs. Her eyes squeeze shut as the pain in the shoulder subsides; her right fore-leg recoiling in spasms of relief.

Rest – but only for a moment.

Her nose thrusts into the elliptical foliage inches from her head, an instinctive motion supported by the evolutionary drive to always check, always consume, sugar-rich berries. Nine large 12-mm diameter purplish-black huckleberries quickly disappear through flappy lips.

The 17-year-old, 85-kilogram adult female black bear knew one thing: she wasn’t old yet, or for that matter finished. She still felt remarkably young and powerful despite the injury that broke her front leg 10 months ago. The healing powers of hibernation allowed the break to set – not entirely true, but straight enough to bear some weight. The leg worked but steady use brought pain to her right shoulder.

After two weeks of adapting to this hurdle of physical movement she adopted a frontal twist, favoring each right step to rely on her left forepaw coming down harder than usual and forcing a sway in her shoulders. Frustration and awkwardness soon led to a set rhythm of movement – coarse but functional. The anguish of pain and frustration organized into thoughts of survival and strategy.

She lies still for the moment, only her shallow breathing audible in the shrubfield. Her mind drifts back three years to two small cubs wrestling for dominance on this very stump. And she loses patience at attempts to coax her offspring into mimicking her carpenter ant feeding.

The alarm calls of a distraught Pika bring her back. For a few seconds she surveys the steep slope of berry shrubs, dense clumps of small conifers, and a matrix of wood debris, decorated by the purple candles of fireweed. She picks up the scent of a black-tail buck down-slope. This is her area and she isn’t about to give up on the over-abundant sources of berries and ants. She would die trying.

The large female black bear half slid, half pulled herself off the stump down into the familiar texture and fit of 100-cm high huckleberry and blueberry foliage. A feel she has experienced all her life. A feel and fit she relishes. The shrubs are at the perfect height, inviting the berries to dance around her long tongue and protruding lips. She consumes 42 berries in 60 seconds, only swallowing three times. Those berries were easy.

She high grades the next patch, targeting the largest and ripest. The next 60 seconds, 38 berries and then only 14 berries the following minute. Time to move on. Despite her injury, she sways quickly into the next patch of disaccharide carbohydrates. She hits the largest first then the smaller. Although her bite rate is slower and the urgency for rests more frequent, she continues to make good the summer’s exceptional berry crop.

During the last week, following the two-month breeding period, hormonal tremors triggered the demand for weight gain dictated by frenzied feeding. Her days now consist of 14-16 hours of berry foraging, resting only during mid-afternoon and nights.

As her black pelage fades into the long shadows of the shrubfield’s east edge, she experiences a coolness and security – she is always more relaxed in the shadows of big trees.

She finds what she needs and slumps into a "tub" of high water table lined with horsetail. Wallowing she takes three bites of the 30-cm high coarse plant that will stimulate secretions along the lining of her intestine, ensuring the maintenance of her digestive tract. The burning sun is high in the sky as she finally lies still, unknowing to the science of discontinuous embryonic development that has prolonged implantation of her fertile eggs but understanding that the succeeding weeks must consist of hours and hours of berry foraging allowing her to gain as much weight as possible.

She wonders if the pain in her leg will ever be gone.

The thoughts and actions of Marisa , a dominant resident female black bear on Blackcomb Mountain have been interpreted through 11 years of field observation. Black bears are incredibly resilient and responsive to injury. Marisa is part of a focal group of animals that I observe annually to determine the life history of female black bears.


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