Thursday, August 22, 2013

One of New York's oldest bruins

My internship at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation central office is going well. Most of my time has been spent at a desk doing all sorts of things, but a few times I’ve been allowed outside!

About a month ago, I got to head to an old sub-office of the central office, found in Delmar. NOW this facility is just home to the state’s pathology unit, as well as a lot of stored items. In years past though, this is where the Bureau of Wildlife was housed. The reason I went, was to get some educational supplies together for a festival I went to and worked a DEC educational table. We were digging around in the storage unit, finding all sorts of interesting pieces of equipment, signage, traps, and anything else you could possibly imagine field biologists needing when working with wildlife.

We then headed into the basement of the main building. Stephen King should come down to Delmar for a visit and check out this building. It’s a bit creepy down there, and very clinical feeling. A lot of stainless steel, and large, suspended overhead lighting. If only the walls could talk…

We were in search of a well-preserved bear skull in good condition to bring with us, so visitors to the festival could check it out. In a different storage area, which is a large walk-in cooler/freezer no longer climate-controlled, we found what we were looking for. There is a large collection of bear skulls that were part of a long-ago study. We had so many to choose from, we just had to open shoe box-sized boxes and check out the quality of the skull within. Almost immediately, my eye was drawn to one box in particular. I’m not sure why, it was in the same box color and size as all the others, but I just chose one randomly from the middle of a stack. When I read the writing, I realized what a prize I had picked.

It said: Aged 41 3/4 +/- 1 years old – Oldest N.Y. age to date. Shot 30 November 1974.

THAT is an old bear! Especially because it was living in the wild! I wonder how much longer this bruin would have lived, had it not been shot?

What I’m particularly interested in sharing with you, is the quality of this bear’s teeth, and sneak in a little bit of education too, if I may!

First I’ll begin with the taxonomy of the American black bear, which is how the animal is classified. All KNOWN living organisms are classified by first Kingdom, then: Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. There are other sub-levels in between all of those major levels, but to keep this simple (and to be honest I don’t understand anything more complex), I’m keeping to the KPCOFGS.

Basic American black bear taxonomy. 
Table created by Alyssa Johnson 
for the purposes of this blog.
You’ll notice that the Order that the black bear belongs to, is Carnivora. We think of bears (we have three species in North America: black bears, grizzly/brown bears (Ursus arctos), and polar bears (Ursus maritimus)) as ferocious meat-eaters. For our black bears, this simply is not true. This is not to say that black bears won’t exhibit “ferocious” behavior, and won’t eat meat- they will do both if necessary. But according to countless books and peer-reviewed articles I’ve pored over this summer, 90% of the black bear’s diet typically is vegetative matter, at least for bears in our neck o’ the woods. They eat berries, leaves, tender stems, mast (acorns, nuts, etc), roots, and cambium (inner layer of bark sometimes called sapwood). They really are opportunistic scavengers, who eat anything edible. While it is in their nature, to be predatory, yet they often don’t actively seek out or hunt live prey. Where as grizzly and polar bears seek out meat actively (polars even more so) by hunting, black bears rarely do so. A common “live meat” I’ve come across the black bears feasting on, is often newborn deer, moose, and elk calves while they are nestled down shortly after birth.

I feel, and many bear biologists likely agree, that perhaps black bears should not be considered in the Order Carnivora. But, many animals are categorized by their dentition, or teeth. And black bears CERTAINLY have the long canines that other carnivores have. But what they also have, are really well developed molars in the back of their mouths. These wide teeth are adapted for grinding plant matter, not slicing meat.
I realize all of this talk of bear classification may seem to be straying from the topic about this really old bear skull I found in DEC storage, but trust me, I’m coming back to it.

Below are pictures of a much younger black bear, than the old bear first mentioned. I don’t know the exact age, but I do know that it is an adult. I am including a few pictures of it for comparison.

An adult black bear skull
And below is the old bear’s skull!

An adult black bear skull

Now it’s very apparent that the quality of these skulls is different. Perhaps it’s the way that the older one was cleaned, maybe something caustic was used. Maybe it’s just time that’s aged the bone. But what I want you to look at are the teeth.

Check out those canines! The poor old bear was somehow managing to forage and feed with ground down nubs. And it appears the root of that canine was exposed! I can only imagine how uncomfortable that must have been. The younger adult bear on the right has beautiful, intact teeth still. These canines though, typically used by carnivores to get a hold of their prey and hang on so it can’t escape. But, like I said above, black bears are primarily plant-eaters. Plants don’t move too fast. What I have read though, is that they use these powerful, sharp teeth in conjunction with their claws to get into logs for bees, ants, grubs, etc. I’ve witnessed, with my very own eyes, a bear tear into a log, and it was like it was made out of tissue!
Below are pictures of the molars, with striking contrasts between the ages.

Texture is difficult to portray in a 2 dimensional image, but I think you can see the smoothness of the old bear’s molars, and the points in the younger bear’s. The dark coloration is dentine poking through the enamel. Animals that eat vegetation often exhibit this. White-tailed deer, in fact, can be aged by the quality and quantity of dentine showing on the teeth. After 40 + years of eating all sorts of things, this bear’s teeth are showing it.

I wonder, had that old bear not been taken by a hunter, how much longer he or she could have lived with teeth in that condition. In Minnesota, a biologist by the name of Karen Noyce has been monitoring a bear – a really old bear – since the early 1980s. She claims this bear is the oldest living wild bear ever. Well, of course whoever aged “my” old bear could be wrong, but perhaps she’ll see this article and be interested in one of NY’s oldest bruins. For a recent article, check out: World’s oldest wild bear.

Some of that bear’s teeth are missing as well. I don’t remember seeing them in the box, like they had fallen out after the skull was cleaned. You can see the crater where that upper canine should be, it’s almost like the bone dissolved. There might have been some trauma to the bear’s face, and it lost the tooth. That’s just my speculation though of course.

41 + year old bear skull showing missing teeth
 It’s really interesting to have such a stark contrast in ages to look at. Skulls fascinate me, and are a great ‘hands-on’ piece that have made their way into many of my classes. The bone structure and dentition can tell us so much about how the animal lives. I was glad to come across this record bruin and to be able to share the pictures!

I’ve been collecting skulls over the past year or so. I have this collection, and it is kind of morbid, but I promise they are not displayed in my living room. I’m slowly building a collection of native critters, so that when I do educational presentations, I can share the animal skulls. I don’t have a black bear skull yet for my collection, and I certainly won’t be hunting bear anytime soon. Perhaps one will come to me somehow, until then I just have these cool pictures.

Thanks for sticking through a long entry, it was worth it though, right?!

1 comment:

  1. Great post! That poor old must have been a pain to eat with those warn down teeth. He must have figured out a good system, though, to have lived so long.


Thank you for reading and wishing to leave a comment! Unfortunately, due to a high number of spam comments being left under the "Anonymous" heading, I had to disable that feature. You may still leave a comment with a Gmail account, or under the OpenID option! I welcome comments, suggestions, stories, and tall tales!