I’m off to the wilds of Montana this week, doing some in-person, up-close biomimicry research, and I’ve got my fingers crossed I’ll see a grizzly bear. But you know, over there, not over here. With five inch long claws, massive muscular shoulders and forearms, and a habit of rearing up ten feet tall with a throaty growl, I don’t want this guy breathing hot bear breath down my neck. A subspecies of brown bear, he makes his home in the woodlands and mountains in Asia, Europe, Western Canada, Alaska, and down into the ‘Lower 48.’ He’s pretty much got the widest range of any bear. How’s he do it? Easy. He’s an opportunist par excellence. Can we learn something about adapting to change from the grizzly?
Image © Szecksa
The grizzly bear adapts readily to alpine mountains, deserts, beaches, and forests, and her wide-ranging appetite spans a remarkable variety of food preferences and foraging techniques. She’s a cunning hunter, and passes her tricks on to her cubs, just like we do. In fact, her smarter-than-the-average-bear abilities allowed some of her ancestors to venture into the extreme life of the Arctic, becoming polar bears in less than a million years. That’s the blink of an eye in evolutionary time, and she might even consider mating and producing offspring with a polar bear if they should meet. In fact, her long, polar bear-like muzzle and beautiful frosted highlights may be testament to the indiscretions of her fore-mothers.
Our grizzly can take down big prey, like moose, elk, bison, caribou, and even muskox and black bears, as well as small animals like ground squirrels and rabbits, marmots, lemmings, and voles. Because our girl is at the top of the food chain, her habits indirectly influence the entire ecological community. She keeps prey populations in check, preventing overgrazing, which in turn affects plant and insect distribution, as well as bird migration patterns.
Image © Lodges
Despite her love of a good steak, our bear is actually an omnivore. This is the secret to her success. She can almost always find something to eat. In Yellowstone National Park, for instance, she gets half of her yearly caloric needs feeding on miller moths and whitebark pine nuts (I know you thought I was going to say peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches stolen from picnic baskets). In British Columbia, she skewers salmon with a deft claw, while in Alaska, she digs for razor clams, adding a side of sedge grass and berries. Grizzly bears on the coast scavenge washed up whales, and every bear loves blueberries, blackberries, salmon berries, cranberries, buffalo berries, huckleberries, and pretty much any other kind of berry. She will even eat ladybugs, ants, and bees if she finds them. She just rolls with the punches, enjoying the bear necessities of life: flowers, grasses, roots, fungus, nuts, mammals, insects, and fish (oh, and honey, of course). The moral of the story? Diversify!
Image via WikiCommons
It may surprise you to learn that she is 85-90% vegetarian. But unlike the large hoofed mammals she shares her ecosystem with, the grizzly doesn’t have a big multi-chambered stomach filled with collaborative bacteria to do her digesting for her. Instead, she has a very long intestine, longer than any of the other Carnivora. This gives her more time to wring value out of a potentially low-quality diet. She has an intimate relationship with many fruiting plants, some of which can only sprout after she poops them out. A tremendous digger, her long claws and powerful shoulders stir up the soil, creating open patches for many plants to grow. This increases species richness, while bringing nitrogen up from the lower soil layers. Her habit of carrying salmon carcasses into the surrounding forest brings even more nitrogen into the ecosystem, while providing leftovers for gulls, ravens, and foxes.
Her other survival trick is to simply go to sleep for the winter, holing up in a cozy cave, hollow log, or crevice. She’s not a true hibernator like a squirrel or a marmot, though. Her temperature goes down just a few degrees, and she will certainly wake up and let you know if her beauty rest is disturbed. But for five months she doesn’t eat, drink, or urinate. Does a bear poop in the woods? Not in the winter. When she’s good and ready, she emerges, after losing half her body weight. Personally, I think this is pure genius. If I could bottle and sell ‘The 5-Month Grizzly Diet,’ I’d have a yacht in the Caribbean by now.
Doctors think so too. They are looking at grizzlies for novel ways to prevent and treat chronic kidney disease. A hibernating bear takes in no food or water for months, doesn’t move or pee, but somehow wakes up with low blood urea nitrogen levels, healthy lean body mass, strong bones, and no complications? A human with reduced kidney function would suffer muscle loss, osteoporosis, and heart disease. How do bears avoid that, and how can we learn from them?
As Baloo the Bear once said, and it bears repeating: “Look for the bare necessities, The simple bare necessities. Forget about your worries and your strife. I mean the bare necessities, Old Mother Nature’s recipes.” That’s why a bear can rest at ease. The bare necessities of life will come to you!
An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.
Lead Image: Grizzly bear resting on a log in Alaska via Shutterstock