Being Dominant

July 15, 2014 Posted by: Michael Fitz

856 eating a fish near Brooks Falls
Bear 856 routinely demonstrates the characteristics of a dominant adult male. (NPS/M. Fitz)

Dominant male bears along the Brooks River gain many advantages over other bears. They can access the most preferred fishing spots when they choose, easily appropriate food from other bears, and have a higher likelihood of courting female bears and siring offspring. Gaining access to food allows bears to grow larger. Growing larger gives bears a greater chance to become reproductively successful.

856 (right) courts 708 along the Brooks River
856 (right) is so large and dominant that he faces little, if any, competition from other males for access to female bears. (NPS/M. Fitz)

Take bear 856, for example. He’s a mature and large adult male who is frequently seen at Brooks Falls. He has his pick of fishing spots and is unchallenged when courting females. He’s the most dominant bear seen along the Brooks River over the past few summers. But, how does a bear become dominant? What behavioral signs indicate a dominant bear?

Traits of a dominant bear:

  • Large: Dominant bears are typically the largest bears.
  • Male: The most dominant bears are adult males, most likely because males are 1/2 to 1/3 larger than females.
  • Assertive: Dominant bears have an assertive disposition, move in an apparently confident manner through the river, and often ignore competing bears.
  • Body and Ear Positioning: Dominant bears approach other bears with their head up and ears forward.

856 consistently demonstrates all of those physical characteristics and behaviors. In contrast, submissive or subordinate bears yield space and resources to 856 and bears like him. During an encounter, submissive bears also hold their head lower and position their ears back against their head. They are defensive and usually choose to avoid the approach of dominant bears.

856 (right) displaces 747 from a fishing spot
856 (right) forces another large, dominant bear out of a favorite fishing spot. Note that 856's ears are upright and somewhat forward indicating he is assuming a dominant position while the other bears ears are back against its head. (NPS/M. Fitz)

Dominance simply means having power and influence over others. Dominant bears influence the movement and behavior of other nearby bears, and while they can’t command another bear to do anything they can use their size, strength, and power to force bears to yield or move away. 856 uses his size and disposition (he is more willing to assert himself around other bears) to gain access to the resources that he wants. Bears live in a competitive world where the biggest animals acquire and maintain greater access to the resources necessary to survive. In a bear’s world, being dominant is yet another way to win the game of life.

bears, dominance, adult male, survival, Katmai

7 Comments Comments icon

  1. dominic
    November 20, 2019 at 07:12

    I think we are family

  2. Tim
    July 27, 2014 at 01:23

    856 is awe inspiring. On a recent visit with other injured veterans, 856 approached us on the trail leaving the falls. We first noticed him walking down the path about 15 feet away. As we made noise and slowly walked backwards, he kept approaching us. He did not change his stride. We had to exit the path into the woods but he followed our group (and an intern ranger) into the woods. After getting within about 10 feet of us, he realized we were not a threat and continued on his way. An adrenaline producing experience for sure!!

  3. Sue
    July 21, 2014 at 06:25

    By "here" I mean Brooks Falls. Sorry for not being clear in the previous post.

  4. Sue
    July 21, 2014 at 06:24

    Thank you very much. I know bears have large ranges and they could be anywhere in the park. There seems to be quite a few bears that were here last year but are not here this year.

  5. July 21, 2014 at 11:10

    @Sue: Each year, new bears arrive on the Brooks River and commonly seen bears don’t arrive. It is quite possible that some bears find other places to fish and forage so they don’t need to migrate to the Brooks River. We know a lot about the bears when they are using the Brooks River, but we know very little about their movements and home ranges when they are not here.

  6. July 21, 2014 at 11:10

    @Sue: If a female bear loses cubs, then she may go back into estrus giving a male bear a opportunity to mate with her. From what I observed, and from the reports of other rangers, 856 showed no interest in 402’s yearling cub, so it appears that he didn’t drive the cub away. Of course, with any explanation of bear behavior there remains a certain degree of uncertainty since we can’t communicate with the bear and really know what’s going on inside of its head.

  7. Sue
    July 18, 2014 at 11:15

    Do you think 856 drove the cub away from 402 to force her into estrus? And do you think that some bears have not shown up this year because the fishing is good at other spots in the park that are not visited?

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