Carol and Queen
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As two grizzly bear mothers raising their cubs together, Queen and Carol seem to have an unusual and quite advantageous alliance. I had never heard of such a thing, which isn’t surprising given the fact that grizzly bears are almost always characterized as “loners”, even though coastal grizzlies spend most of their waking years near other bears. However, here are two adult female grizzly bears choosing to create a non biological family alliance. Two sets of eyes are obviously better than one for keeping an eye out for danger. Two adult females have a lot more muscle and strength if it ever came down to physically defending the cubs from a predatory male grizzly. The cubs also have each other to play with, play being an important way that young bears develop physical and social skills. Without having to spend as much time playing with their cubs, the mothers can spend more time eating. (Brad mentioned an interesting study that collected data on the amount of time mother grizzly bears spend playing with cubs. Mothers spent more time playing with cubs when the litters were odd numbers – 1 or 3 cubs. Mothers played the least with even numbers of cubs since they are paired off and able to play one on one with each other). The arrangement between these grizzly bear mothers seems like a really smart strategy in an area were food sources are abundant and they don’t have to compete with each other for food.
Sitting in the wet grass watching these two mothers and their cubs I was riddled with questions about the true nature of bears’ social behavior. As I had often asserted, and suspected, the bears of Katmai are actually much more social than the literature on brown bears represents. Do other mothers co-parent like these two? Are there actually permanent social bonds and relationships between other adult bears in the area? I was thrilled at the possibility of getting to answer these questions, and formulate new ones, by observing these bears over many years. I couldn't wait to get to know them better and to learn about the true nature of bear social behavior within an intact ecosystem such as the Katmai coast. As I sat in the grass, my brain bursting with questions, Queen and her cub started walking our way. They casually ambled by us, heading slowly out of the meadow. They walked over the tangle of driftwood logs lining the edge of the meadow, and then disappeared into the willows and alder thickets behind the white logs.
We glanced back at Carol, and see her recline backwards into the grass. Her cub climbs on top of her belly, and we realize to our delight that she is nursing! Reclined yet keeping her head up, Carol glances every so often around the meadow. Her eyes look relaxed, and her cub looks huge. I’ve never seen a third year cub nursing, and John and I comment that this has to be the world’s biggest baby.
We then look in the direction that Queen had disappeared and are surprised by the most magical and beautiful sight. Queen has climbed up a steep, rocky bluff behind the meadows. She has nestled herself onto a small ledge at the top of the bluff, and is now nursing her cub. As we marvel at the way she lies, perched safely up on the cliff’s edge, golden sun rays burst through the clouds and light up Queen in a wash of bright yellow light. She truly is a queen, shining up on her fortress of rock! What a marvelous spot to nurse. She is high up with a view of the entire meadow, safe from the lumbering weight of any large male grizzly bears that would be unable to follow her up that steep climb. It’s hard for me to even describe how beautiful this moment was, the sunlight, the cliff, the humor in watching two grizzly mothers nurse gargantuan babies whose body size seems to dwarf their mothers. What an amazing afternoon.
After Carol finished nursing, she lied down next to her cub to rest, letting her drooping eyes close, her cub leaning in to her fur. We decided to quietly tip toe out of the meadow and leave the moms to themselves. Moving slowly and gingerly we made our way across the border of the meadow. As the meadow curves around a stream, we got closer to where Carol was resting. When she noticed our presence, she sat up and calmly watched our retreat. I glanced one last time her way, and it is a most precious sight – Carol and her cub were sitting in the identical pose. They both sat on their butts with their legs spread apart, and their knees bent, resting their feet on the ground. The cub was sitting in the exact same pose, nestled between her mother’s legs. Their faces were nearly identical copies of each other, like those wooden Russian dolls that fit perfectly inside one another. What a sight! There was something amazing about their symmetry, so I went to snap a picture, but by the time I bumbled my camera out of the pack, the cub had lied down in mom’s lap, resting a sleepy face on her paw. Lucky for me I don’t really care about capturing that “perfect” picture. It’s in my mind, and that’s what counts.
© 2008 Jessica Teel