Abandoned Cub Finds a New Mother

September 11, 2014 Posted by: Michael Fitz

435 Holly and mixed-aged cubs rest at the mouth of the Brooks River. (NPS/M. Fitz)

In early July, bear 402 abandoned her yearling cub. The yearling, then on its own, was seen several more times in July walking along the banks of the Brooks River. Rangers, including myself, were routinely asked, “Will it find another bear to care for it?” My usual response to this question was coldly factual: Adoption of cubs by another bear is very rare. It has been documented, but is unlikely to happen. However, bears, even young bears, are adaptable and smart. They possess the ability to recognize favorable situations and take advantage of them. 402’s abandoned yearling is no exception.

In late July, photos taken at the mouth of Margot Creek, about 10 miles from Brooks River, suggested that the yearling may have found a foster family. These photos were taken by a bearcam fan who was visiting at the time. Several well known Brooks River bears fish along Margot Creek from late July to late August. I was not skeptical of the yearling’s presence at Margot Creek. His biological mother is known to fish there and was seen there last year with her litter in tow. The series of photos, which piqued the interest of rangers and bearcam fans alike, showed the yearling in close proximity to 435 Holly and her spring cub. 

435 Holly, her spring cub, and adopted yearling near Margot Creek
435 Holly (left), 402's former yearling, and Holly's spring cub (behind the yearling at right) were all seen together near the mouth of Margot Creek. (Tina Crowe photo)

435 Holly's spring cub and adopted yearling at Margot Creek
435 Holly's spring cub and 402's abandoned yearling stand next to one another at Margot Creek. (Tina Crowe photo)

I was unwilling to conclude from these photos that an adoption had occurred. After all, Holly could’ve been merely tolerating the yearling’s close proximity and adoption in brown bears is very rare. Larry Aumiller, the long time manager of McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, observed instances of cub “swapping” where two families of bears come together, the cubs intermingle, and some of the cubs follow the wrong mother. I’ve never seen any adoption of cubs at Brooks River and there is no record of such an event in Katmai’s Brooks River bear monitoring files. However, rare instances have been documented elsewhere, like on Kodiak Island.

I found the photos intriguing though. Could an adoption have occurred? 435 Holly is a bear that routinely returns to the Brooks River in September. I eagerly awaited her return. If she had the yearling in tow, then that would provide firm evidence that she had adopted it. If she was seen nursing the yearling, then there would be no doubt Holly had become an adoptive mom. 

Last Friday, 435 Holly returned to the mouth of the Brooks River with her spring cub and the yearling. Since then, the yearling has nuzzled his adoptive mother, taken fish from her, slept with the family, and nursed along side the spring cub.

435 Holly nursing her spring cub and adopted yearling
435 Holly lies on her back while nursing her cubs at the mouth of the Brooks River. (NPS/M. Fitz)

The risks that cubs face are very high, even with a protective mother at their side. The risks that an abandoned or lost cub faces are exceptionally high. Cubs learn where to find food, when food is available, where to den, and a host of other lessons from their mother.  Without mom to provide those lessons, nourishing milk, and protection from other animals, a cub is unlikely to survive. 

The yearling, by finding a foster mom, proved once again that bears are adaptable. If the reward outweighs a risk, then bears will take a chance. In the yearling’s case, the reward (protection, food) was worth taking the risk (intolerant bear, injury, death). If it had approached an intolerant female it could have been injured or killed. 

We don’t know what circumstances brought the yearling and Holly together. Holly is generally tolerant of the close proximity of other bears. Perhaps the yearling stumbled upon her and found she didn’t react defensively. Perhaps the yearling remembered her tolerance from interactions along the Brooks River. Whatever happened, the yearling found the right bear at the right time.

One nagging question keeps revolving in my mind—why would 435 Holly adopt the yearling? Some biologists hypothesize that altruism evolved in some animals is a result of shared genes. If costs to your own fitness are not too great, it would make sense for you to care for your siblings and their offspring because you share genes with them, genes that will be passed on when they reproduce. However, 402 and 435 Holly are not known to be related. Bears also don’t live in social groups like wolves or humans where social pressures often dictate behaviors. Let’s not forget about Holly’s spring cub either. It now faces extra competition from a bigger, stronger bear. Could the adoption of a yearling into the family reduce the spring cub’s chances of survival? Could that decrease Holly’s genetic fitness? Will an extra warm body in the den benefit her and her genetic cub during hibernation?

We will never know Holly’s motivation in this situation. I’ll ponder these questions, even if they don’t have an answer, but adoption is rare in the bear world. The adaptability of bears and the surprises they provide are will motivate me to keep watching and learning.

bears, cub, family, adoption, bearcam, Margot Creek, Brooks River, adaptability

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  69. September 21, 2016 at 02:22

    Watching him (503) right now through the explore cam and a few years later since this was posted. He is fishing on his own in the brooks in the Jacuzzi. He seems to be doing very well! Massive Otis just arrived and placed himself at this fav spot. A bear moment at its best!

  70. June 18, 2015 at 02:13

    The reason for adoption can also be that it can protect her own cub from beeing killed by a male or another bear. The risk is 50 % less to be killed by another bear for her own cub having the adopted cub. Adoptions occur amongst other species as well and is often explained by less risk for their own offspring to become prey.

  71. October 17, 2014 at 03:47

    This blog is really helpful one..!

  72. October 17, 2014 at 03:45

    Nice blog..! Nice photos..!

  73. October 07, 2014 at 08:31

    We were there when that yearling was abandoned. Glad to see such a positive outcome:)

  74. September 23, 2014 at 04:37

    Thank you Ranger Mike. I am an animal lover and this story has brought me great joy. In a world of self survival, even among most humans, altruistic behavior is nearing extinction. If bears can adapt maybe there is hope for humans.

  75. September 23, 2014 at 03:08

    Just heard the story about Holley's adoption of 402's cub on NPR.I could not believe that a bear would exhibit altruistic principles. It looks like the human species can learn a few things from mother nature. Thanks Mike for a great story.

  76. September 19, 2014 at 11:17

    @Jim: It’s unclear why the yearling was abandoned and we will probably never know why it happened. I tried to articulate some thoughts about that situation in this post: https://www.nps.gov/katm/blogs/Surprises-of-the-Bear-World.htm

  77. Jim
    September 19, 2014 at 08:09

    Any theories why the yearling was abandoned? Does this happen often? It surprised me the rejection came after a year and not with a new born.

  78. September 15, 2014 at 03:31

    @Cathy: Unfortunately, blogs on nps.gov don’t currently support sharing features like you find on many other websites. The only way to share it is to copy and paste the url (https://www.nps.gov/katm/blogs/Abandoned-Cub-Finds-a-New-Mother.htm) into a post you create for Facebook, Twitter, etc.

  79. September 15, 2014 at 12:15

    I would love to share this...how can I do this? Love the bears!!!

  80. September 13, 2014 at 05:53

    Wow. You made my day. I was there in early July and heard and saw the abandoned bear. So happy to hear a great ending!

  81. September 12, 2014 at 07:00

    Beautifully told sweet story. How fortunate Tina Crowe captured the documentation.

  82. September 12, 2014 at 10:37

    This is a wonderful story and some really good news. Thanks, Mike.

  83. September 12, 2014 at 10:04

    It will be interesting to see how long the adopted cub stays with Holly. If it stays through the time she raises her own cub, that would be an extra year of learning and protection. Will this, along with learning from two different mothers, give this cub advantages as it grows into adulthood? We will see as this story plays out before us.

  84. September 12, 2014 at 09:36

    Your experience and knowledge of bear behaviours shine in this recent article. The remarkable adaptation resulted in the best outcome and is a touching story. Nature has found a way for this cub to thrive and survive. I have an idea to write childrens books base on the stories of Katamai. I was think of a short series of book staring Otis,Holly and other characters we are so fond of. Let me know your thoughts.I am an educator with Associarion Montessori International--pre-school-world wide-- Cheers, Sophie

  85. September 12, 2014 at 08:37

    Thank you Ranger Mike! Such a great story! Hopefully we will see them all together in July.

  86. September 12, 2014 at 08:30

    I am so thrilled that Holly has adopted 402's cub. When we visited Brooks we were concerned that the cub had not been seen for a few days. I was so amazed when the Rangers informed us all that the bears in my photos were Holly, her spring cub and the yearling I had been praying for. I certainly hope the adoption will not harm Holly's cub in any way and the blended family will thrive. Holly is amazing!

  87. September 12, 2014 at 12:03

    Boy we all sure needed a happy story on today and this is a great story. Praying that Holly and both cubs have an uneventful winter.

  88. September 11, 2014 at 10:49

    402's yearling looks related to #409's sub-adults. This is another wonderful story. I hope the little dark COY is as lucky to find an adoptive bear (BP) or finds it's mother!!

  89. September 11, 2014 at 09:41

    Thank you Ranger Mike for the story and thank you Tina for the pictures. It has been amazing to be able to witness this story on the cams and in others pictures. Nature is always surprising us and we have been in awe watching something like this that we may never again be lucky enough to see in our lifetime. I feel privileged. I am praying to the Bear Gods that Holly will let the yearling den with her and her cub.

  90. September 11, 2014 at 09:26

    Thank you so much for these photos and this explanation of such an extraordinary adoption!

  91. September 11, 2014 at 09:23

    Thank you! For the candid explanation and insight. We see instances all the time of domesticated animals adopting, other like-animals and completely different species as well. It is so refreshing to see the "wild", we can never completely understand, do the same thing. Thank you

  92. September 11, 2014 at 08:40

    Thank you Ranger Mike for sharing toy knowledge of bears and your insight into their behavior. The story of 402's abondened cub has been at times heartbreaking to watch and other times joyous to see but ultimately fascinating to follow. I cannot wait to see what the next year has in store for this young cub.

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