By Ramiro Bustamante Torres, October 21 2022—
If you haven’t had the chance to lay your eyes on the fattest bear ever, you missed out on the next-best thing, but you are still able to see the results. In Katmai National Park & Preserve in Alaska, U.S., the eighth annual Fat Bear Week was held from Oct 5–11. Fat Bear Week is a chance for the bears who have gained the most mass before winter to face each other in a March Madness-type bracket with the general public voting on which bear they believe is the fattest. Each day, the poll was open with two pairs of bears compared with their early season body and their end-of-season growth. People then would vote on which bear they believe had the most growth and is objectively the fatter bear. The winner of this year’s Fat Bear Week was Bear 747, a previous champion of Fat Bear Week 2020.
Bear 747 — endearingly nicknamed Bear Force One – is estimated to weigh around 1,400 lbs. (636 kg) and has been considered one of the largest brown bears in the world. During the season at Brooks Falls, he had only a few equals that could compete with him. Bear 856 was the dominant bear of the falls for the majority of the season, until the end, where Bear 747 became the most dominant brown bear at Brooks Falls. Regardless, his final competitor was not Bear 856, but Bear 901, who is a medium-sized bear who grew enough to earn her a spot in the final round.
Some students may recognize the name of the park as it was part of an intro to Ecology class in the department of Biological Science. Over the pandemic there was a shift for finding data online to compensate for the lack of in-person labs especially in a course that involved observing ecological activity with groups. Katmai National Park & Preserve has an open source data collection from Brooks Falls where they have set up a camera on a viewing platform where people all over the world can see a live feed of the bears. The park gathers photos from the camera feed and there are park-goers that take photos of the bears and share it with the park which adds more to the data library.
“Our goal is to have students conduct their own project within certain boundaries of what is feasible with the equipment we have. So when we had to move the course online, there was a lot of things we couldn’t do any more,” said Dr. Ariane Cantin, an assistant professor from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary. Cantin has been teaching the intro course since Winter 2021.
“One of the first ideas we had was to use an existing database. In the last 20 years, people have been publishing their data online,” she continued. “So we looked into it more, and realized that it was something we could do with our students. We started looking at variables we could use [such as the] position of bears in the falls, when our bears are more present with time of day, what time of year to kind of bring back the idea of making biological hypotheses, which is the goal of our course.”
Fat Bear Week has become more and more famous over the years garnering attention of the public outside of Alaska and the U.S., with around 1 million votes in total in this recent competition. Along with the growing database from volunteer submissions, Katmai has been receiving a steady traffic flow online from the fundraiser set up by the Katmai Conservancy group to support conservation efforts for the park. Cantin shared her thoughts with public initiatives when involving conservation.
“I get excited about biological initiatives and conservation areas. I think Fat Bear Week is an excellent way to bring awareness to people. They have a lot of activities, and they’ll talk [about things] that can be used in schools, to introduce people to something that’s fun,” said Cantin. “It’s kind of a gateway into biology to start to ask questions like, why do they fatten up? Why do you think it’s kind of important for their survival? I think it is a good way to reach out to the public, make people aware of it and cheer for those bears without really impacting them.”
Not even bears are free from scandal, as seen during the semi-finals where Bear 747 was the target of voting fraud. The park was quick to notice the rush of invalid votes and corrected the situation which still had Bear 747 win. If this is not a testament to the enormity of Bear 747 and his impact on the public, his recent win should do the trick.