Teaching bears to fish

Of all the photos that I arrived back in my office with from my trip to Alaska, it was the series that produced this particular photo that is probably my favorite moment out of all the brown bears fishing for coho salmon. Any given morning we had up to 5 different bears all working the mouth of this one creek and each one had their own strategy for catching fish. 

Some bears would wade out into the water and wait patiently for fish to come pushing past. Others contented themselves on the bank only to come charging out into the creek when fish pushed in from the ocean and there was sufficient splashing to catch their attention. This big sow, on the other hand, tended to charge out into creek, running about, splashing, stirring up the waters, and then spring up onto two legs to see what fish she may have scared into giving away their location. Each of these fishing techniques will be passed on to offspring.

When it comes to having babies in this world, there are really too different ways of trying to ensure their survival. You can have lots and lots of offspring, only to turn them lose in their first year of life, or have no role in their world at all after birth, and play the numbers game in hopes that at least one survives. This is the strategy of rabbits for instance, or sea turtles. Their population is governed by their reproductive capacity. And they are what ecologists refer to as an “R-selected species.” The R stands in place of reproductive. Everything is based around their reproductive potential. 

Alternatively, you can hang on to your kids for a while. You can teach them. Educate them. Help them learn the nuances of the world such as where to find food at various seasons, how to survive a drought, or what to do if your a coastal brown bear and the salmon run is late. This takes time. This takes considerable energy and investment. This is what both bears and humans do. And ecologists refer to us both as K-selected species. The K is used by ecologists to represent carrying capacity. These species tend to operate at or near carrying capacity of an ecosystem at all times. Wheres a meadow may support tens of thousands of mice, for instance, there are only so many top predators like bears that it can support. 

When two sub-adults appeared one day out of the fog to come fish the river, we noticed that they also employed this same technique of scaring up fish. They would dive into the water, running back and forth and then stopping, rearing up on hind legs, and whirl around looking for fish splashing. Although they were young, and not quite as efficient and successful as the old sow, the technique was nearly identical. These two sub-adults, I would learn, were that sows offspring she had kicked out the year before and we were watching first hand the success of how she so painstakingly educated her cubs years before. 

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