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a heavy bear in the woods
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The Fattest Bear in Alaska

Why do Alaska’s bears eat so much? (Hint: It’s not to win a prize!)

By Talia Cowen
From the February 2020 Issue

The votes had been counted. A winner had been chosen. It was official: Holly was the fattest bear in Alaska’s Katmai National Park.

More than 187,000 people voted last October in the park’s Fat Bear Week contest. The yearly competition asks voters to decide which brown bear they think has gained the most weight over the summer and fall. Holly beat out 11 other bears to become the chubby champion of 2019.

In the weeks leading up to the contest, bears like Holly gobble up about 30 salmon every day. They catch the slippery fish in their powerful paws and chomp down with their mighty jaws. The bears consume between 30,000 and 60,000 calories a day, causing them to blow up like furry balloons.

What makes bears take part in nature’s most adorable eating competition? Packing on pounds before winter is important for their survival.

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Left: Holly, July 22, 2019;  Right: Holly, September 22, 2019    

A Long Winter Snooze    

When the cold Alaskan winter hits, the bears’ food supply disappears. Temperatures drop, freezing the streams where tasty salmon swim. The berries that bears snack on vanish.

To survive the harsh winter, the bears go into hibernation: a special kind of deep sleep that keeps them alive when food is hard to find. Many other animals hibernate during the winter months too, like bats, bumblebees, and hedgehogs.

Snuggled up in their dens, bears will not eat, drink, pee, or poop for months. Their heart rate slows down to eight or nine beats per minute. Sometimes, they take a breath only once every 45 seconds.

While these corpulent bears snooze, the weight they gained during summer and fall helps them survive. Their bodies use the extra fat to stay healthy and warm throughout the winter.

Defending Her Crown

When Holly crawls out of her den this spring, she’ll no longer be the hulking ball of fur that she was in the fall. Having burned up much of her fat while hibernating, she’ll be a bony bear with a big appetite.

But she can’t lounge in the spring sunshine for too long. Soon, it will be time for her to start bulking up again for another winter—and defend her crown as the fattest bear in Katmai. 

This article was originally published in the February 2020 issue.

Can't-Miss Teaching Extras

Do you think Holly was the rightful winner of Fat Bear Week? Take a look at the before and after photos of all the bears, and poll your class to see which bear they think should’ve won.

Watch this video from SuperScience to answer any lingering questions about the science of hibernation.

Animals have developed many adaptations in order to survive freezing winters. This article from the Canadian Broadcasting Company explains the other ways animals keep alive during the snowy months.