By Walt Hickey
Numlock is off until Jan. 2, 2019! During the week between Christmas and New Year’s we’re doing best of’s. This Sunday: let’s all remember Fat Bear Week, by far the best-received Sunday edition of 2018.
Thanks so much to all the folks who subscribed in 2018, your support is the reason this newsletter is possible.
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition! This week I spoke to Outside Magazine’s Erin Berger about her piece “The Glory of Otis, Fattest of the Fat Bears.” In lieu of my usual preamble, here’s a picture of Otis:
Ronald Woan, CC BY-NC 2.0 Flickr
This interview has been condensed and edited.
How’d you get into Fat Bear Week?
I don’t even remember, it’s been so long.
You’re a longtime fan?
I actually met someone from Alaska, and her mom — an Alaskan — was really into those Explore.org cams. I felt like every time I tried to look at them there were no bears. I didn’t know what their schedule was, I could never figure it out. I saw pictures of it — you know how you see pictures of fat animals on the internet and you just go down a rabbit hole?
At Outside, we follow a lot of national park news, and some video of Otis came up. And I always wanted to write about Fat Bear Week, and they just let me. What’s the worst that could happen?
The National Park Service, which runs Katmai Park, runs an annual event each fall highlighting these animals as they really bulk up.
I talked to a couple of rangers who said, “I know you all think it’s fun and games, but Fat Bear Week is a way to learn that these bears need to be fat to survive.” They don’t get a lot of visitors — it’s hard to get to Alaska — so, in a way it brings the bears to the people. That’s a big talking point for them, the Explore.org cams are a great way for people to be aware that they exist. I think they wanted to have fun with the fact that a lot of people like to watch the bears and see how they get bigger over the season. They wanted to get other people in on that. The difference between a bear in early summer and late fall is ridiculous. I think they saw it as a way to teach people about hibernation.
In the late summer brown bears put on 30 to 40 percent more weight than they had. The scale of this is insane, particularly with the Alaskan bears. Katmai’s bears top out over 1,000 pounds, compared to Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, which never get over 900 pounds and Olympic National Park’s black bears, which reach around 600 pounds. These are truly huge.
We took a lot of time to figure out what to compare them to and settled on “piano.” But telephone pole was in the running.
That was surprising to me. I always thought grizzly bears seemed gigantic, but brown bears you don’t think about that much. But their diet is such that they just balloon. I didn’t even talk about this in the article, but they go into this phase when preparing for hibernation where they never feel satisfied: hyperphagia. It actually made me sad! I didn’t think about that as I was writing: they’re actually always hungry, that makes me feel bad for them.
Otis, triumphant, 2017, Katmai National Park
They’re the second biggest bear species after polar bears.
I would not have guessed that. We talk about grizzly bears all the time, going on and off the endangered species list. I’ve encountered a black bear. Brown bears are humble. Fat Bear Week gives them their time in the sun. They deserve credit for how big they get.
Let’s talk Otis. Why was he so intriguing to you to hinge the article on?
Well, kind of awkward, I feel like I kind of cursed Otis this year because he didn’t get voted past one round. He’s so old, we might not have him for that much longer.
I love him — he’s the one that you see if you look up Fat Bear Week because he’s won so much. I love his facial expressions: I am the person that imagines he has something in common with me spiritually. He always looks awkward, he has bad posture, he just sits around and doesn’t really socialize, eats all day. Not like a perfect fit for my personality, but I feel like we get each other.
Otis, September 2016, Katmai NPS
He’s a bear of the people.
He’s a bear of the people. He looks like he feels the malaise that all of us do and he’s working through it.
I think it’s nice that he’s getting up there in age and he’s still doing his thing.
My favorite line of the piece was “Consider the classic advice for how to photograph well: Sit up straight, lift your chin, don’t get too close to the camera. Otis does the opposite, to great effect.”
When I talked to people, many were like, “Otis is not actually that fat. He just looks kind of fat on camera.” I just took a picture — we took our author photos — I hated my author photo. I was really struggling with that. And the more I learned about Otis, the more it helped me come to peace with it! It was really nice to know that in some places, you’re allowed to be hunchy on camera and people will love you for it.
Otis went down early in the competition, but we have two bears really on the ascendance. One a hardworking mother, the other the new bear to beat.
You’re referring to Beadnose and 747.
Beadnose has won before, which I think people tend to forget. Some have called her an underdog. She is not. She actually was single this year and with no cubs to feed and no men holding her back, she really fattened up. It really helps that she also did what Otis did, she really knows how to work the camera. There’s this one awkward picture where she’s sitting and her two small feet are sticking out awkwardly on her sides. And she’s fully haunched forward and you can see the whites of her eyes. It’s adorable and she looks gigantic.
And she actually pulled away really fast in the finals voting.
But 747, he’s gotten spoiled every year. He’s always really close. He started really big this year.
He started way bigger than Beadnose did. 747, I feel kind of bad for him, because everyone agrees he’s gigantic. He just never actually gets voted because he’s probably not as photogenic. He’s always standing in pictures. His belly really hangs, but he’s not holistically fat.
One thing that I liked was that it’s really worthy of study how these bears bulk up, not only for ecological reasons, but also how they can build up without having plaque build up in their arteries and how they can remain so sedentary without muscle or bone deterioration. Those, you said, have some interesting scientific applications.
I got on the phone with a wildlife biologist who lives in Norway, she’s been part of studies where they get vital information from bears who are actively hibernating in the wild. It’s really hard to do. They don’t totally know everything that’s going on in their body like how the fat is being used: it’s going to barely keeping their systems running.
We’re in this time now where we actually know more about hibernation than we did 10 or 20 years ago. We called it “winter sleep” until recently. They actually hibernate as much as a groundhog. They didn’t know if their systems shut down enough to say that they hibernate, because they do sometimes get up, walk around for a second, go back to sleep. But their metabolism shuts down, their body functions shut down enough that we can actually say they hibernate. That surprised me, that we didn’t actually know that for sure until recently.
Now they’re looking at it for people who would go to Mars or something, a long space trip, humans hibernating on that trip. That seems uncomfortable, I don’t know. But the real applications are if you’re somebody who’s in the hospital for a long time and you have to be on bed rest for a while. I was told about this really interesting study where they took serum from hibernating bears and serum from non-hibernating bears and they — I’m going to describe this extremely non-scientifically — apparently applied it to human muscle and the muscle that had been treated with the hibernating bear serum didn’t atrophy as much and it had more regenerative properties. And it wasn’t like that for non-hibernating bears. So, something happens where the muscle is regenerating a bit.
Man we do not pay the National Park Service enough to collect hibernating bear serum.
There’s a lot of potential there!
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.
I love bears. Such magnificent animals.