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A younger, less dominant 856 (left) plays with 489 Ted in 2008. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Roy.

A younger, less dominant 856 (left) plays with 489 Ted in 2008. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Roy.

Do Bears Outgrow Play?

Bearcam often captures the playfulness of bears. We witness cubs sparring with their siblings, mother bears wrestling with their cubs, single bears toying with sticks and logs, and even adult bears partaking in friendly scraps. Recently, bearcam has captured two bears, 151 Walker and 503 Cubadult, play fighting in Brooks River.

We see bear cubs and subadults playing the most. In contrast, I’ve never seen many of the river’s older adult bears play. Bears may be playful when young, but that playfulness may not carry over when they become competitive adults. Bears, like people, change as they mature.

If you only know 856 from bearcam, it might be hard to imagine him playing with any bear. His disposition and behavior is indicative of dominance. He goes where he pleases, fishes where he wants, and faces little or no competition for access to female bears during the mating season. He shows no interest in play. Yet, 856 was once a young, growing bear much like 503 and 151.

856 is now the most dominant bear at Brooks River. He’s held that rank at least since 2011 when I first started tracking interactions between bears at the falls. In September 2008 though, 856 (who was then identified as 888 in the fall) played with 489 Ted at Brooks Falls. That year, Ted and 856 were adults, but neither were considered old bears. Ted was at least 10-12 years old while 856 was probably a year or two younger.

From my observations, Brooks River’s bears become less playful as they age. Is this a sign of maturity or a relatively high hierarchical rank? While play is not a well understood behavior in non-human animals, in bear cubs it may increase their survival rate to independence. Perhaps play’s supposed advantages and their enjoyment of it dwindle to nothing once bears become fully mature adults.

Whatever the reason, we should enjoy a bears’ playfulness and take note of which bears do it. Young male bears that have played together in recent years–like 89 Backpack and 32 Chunk, 151 Walker and 503 Cubadult–could become fierce competitors for food and females in the future. Maybe our long term observations of these animals and their behaviors will allow us to better reflect upon and understand the changing nature of bears.

-The Artist Formerly Known as Mike Fitz

  • Martina

    Thank you for another well written and informative blog post, hope we will get many more.

  • Margaret

    Great observations and food for thought……we need to watch for the next chapter

  • Stacey

    Thank you, as always, Ranger Mike. Grateful for all you do to help us understand the bears!

  • Dee Johnson

    Thank you. Always enjoy anything that you write.

  • Goof_n

    Great article….sometimes they play just like us…..always good lessons. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3780e7479482e0e24d2065926853e46b8eb50cd62bdad6f3691bc02f65e475cc.jpg

    • shnzermom

      LMAO :)

    • mosaic_world

      hahahaha; but that costume is Not going to win the Fat Bear contest!! lol

  • http://midwesttraininggroup.net Hotpeppergyrl aka Rose Iowa

    Thank you Ranger Mike… You are dearly missed.. enjoy your travels…

  • AK Guide

    Thx as asways RFKMF.

  • Jade Bear

    As always, thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge with us, RM! Love your blogs! Keep them coming!

  • Alice BRT

    Wonderful article! I am reading it again for the 3rd time. I love the mystery of bears, we think we know them..understand them…and then they do something so unexpected. They know how to wow us, whether it is play sparring, adopting (for what ever reason) an orphaned cub or bring tear to our eyes by sudden violence…They are mysteries, and I love them. Thank you so much for your articles.

  • PennyinMT

    Thanks Mike for continuing to share your thoughts and knowledge. We can never get enough information.

  • Cincygirl

    Great article Mike! Love watching them play! Miss you & RR alot

  • mosaic_world

    I can’t remember if it was on the katmai chats or another cam/site but somewhere it was suggested that play was practice for interacting with other animals (same species) when they became emancipated/independent

  • https://disqus.com/by/Ranger_Mike/ Mike Fitz

    In the post above I wrote, “…in bear cubs [play] may increase their survival rate to independence.” That is based on a long term bear behavioral study done at Pack Creek, AK. You can read the study at https://media.kaboom.org/docs/documents/pdf/Fagen-and-Fagen-2009.pdf .

    • AndreaO

      I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a day at Pack Creek last August. I can’t even describe how incredible it was.

  • kenairiver

    I loved this article Mike! I had the amazing opportunity to stand on the platform at the Falls and watch 151 and 503 play fight in the Jacuzzi this past September, multiple times. One would think 503 would have been tired from fighting the swirling waters of the “J”, but the minute Walker showed up they both stopped fishing several times and took time out to play fight! It does make me wonder thinking about 89 and 32 in years past.. Did 32 since he was higher on hierarchy of bears grow out of it, and just stop playing? Watching both 151 and 503 now makes me wonder in the next several years will we see the same behavior as 32 and BP? It does seem to be more of a sub adult behavior, so for now I will enjoy and watch and learn!! Thanks for all your contributions past and present to our knowledge of bears and their behaviors. Wishing you well.

    • Alice BRT

      Kenairiver, Geez, this got me thinking…I wonder if play fighting is a really non-violent and “friendly” way to establish a bear’s dominance…kind of way that 32 Chunk could pre-Falls-non-threatening show to 89 that he is bigger and more mature bear. It would have been obvious to 89 BP that 32 Chunk was stronger and bigger (back in 2013 and 2014 when play fighting on the LR)…since then, when they have met up at the Falls, the two have been somewhat “friendly” and 89 has been somewhat “respectful”…

      PS, I miss 89 Back Pack and hope that we see him before the winter hibernation comes.

      • kenairiver

        I do too, Alice! There is so much we don’t understand about bear behavior! I am so thankful for this amazing opportunity to observe and study these amazing animal in a non-threatening and non-invasive way! Always thankful to explore.org for this priceless gift!!

        • Alice BRT

          Definitely Thanks to Explore.org for the opportunity to watch these wonderful beings, and to the NPS for the education that they are giving to us…and huge thank you to Mike Fitz for everything!

  • lesleezee

    I enjoy watching the bears of all ages play fight. I will definitely be watching to see how that changes over the life of the bears. I’m grateful that you are writing regular blogs based on your research and experience, thank you.

  • federal way

    Thanks Mike Fitz. It is interesting to see how the behavior changes as they mature and their needs change. Looking forward to future blogs. :)

  • flowerbear

    gm, rfkamf! this is another great article from you, i really enjoy your writing style, your observations, etc. but i’ve been wondering…i’ve seen you post this summer as “mf, formerly known as ranger mike” … but this post says the “ranger formerly known as mike fitz” – does that mean you’ve recently taken another ranger job?

  • Jeanette Koenig

    Haven’t groups of adult male polar bears been observed playing in the pre-season before seal hunting begins? I thought the theory was that they were testing each other out in a non-threatening setting so they’d have a better idea of which bears to fight later on when it counted. Just thought that was kind of interesting.

  • debra turnbull

    Thank you so much. You are greatly missed! This past year wasn’t the same without you. Hope you are doing well.