Bones Don't Lie: Evidence of a Bear's Perseverance Through Trauma

January 22, 2015 Posted by: Michael Fitz

On July 1, 2014, bear 130 Tundra was found dead near Brooks River. Since this bear was well known by rangers and the public, her skull was collected and cleaned so it could be used for educational and interpretive programs. As it turns out, Tundra’s skull reveals a biography of trauma she apparently suffered through several years before. Bones don’t lie. They tell the story of pain and healing. As a yearling cub, this bear apparently persevered through potentially traumatic damage to her skull.

Her skull tells the story. Every skeleton, including those of humans, records a “bone biography.” Bones change size and shape in response to forces placed on them. Stress from repeated use can deteriorate or thicken bones. As fractures heal, bones record a scar of the event. It’s no different for animals. A fracture will be recorded in the bone as it heals. 

In late June 2008, when 130 Tundra was a yearling cub, she sustained an obvious injury to the left side of her head. No one witnessed the cause of the injury, but it did produce a distinctive scar that allowed us to easily identify the bear. However, in 130’s case the fur on her face and head may have hidden a more traumatic injury than a simple, bloody flesh wound.

130-Tundra as a yearling cub with a facial injury in 2008 As a yearling, 130 Tundra sustained a head injury that bloodied the left side of her face. NPS photo.

Even though this bear was obviously injured as a yearling, I don’t recall that her behavior was somehow different or abnormal for a young bear. As an independent bear, she bore a scar from the injury, but was able to fish and play like any other subadult bear. As she matured into adulthood, 130 Tundra did not seem to suffer at all from the injury.

130 Tundra near Brooks Falls in late June 2014

130 Tundra’s facial injury left a lasting scar above her left eye. NPS/M. Fitz.

Her skull reveals another side of the story. The left side of her skull is obviously misshapen, and the deformity is exactly where her face was bloodied in 2008. Mammal skulls are bilaterally symmetrical. One side is a mirror image of the other. 130 Tundra’s skull doesn’t hold this pattern though.

130 Tundra skull with normal skul (inset at upper right) for comparison

Compare 130 Tundra’s skull with a “normal” bear skull of equivalent size (inset). The left side of 130 Tundra’s skull is deformed. NPS photo.

Skull of 130 Tundra from above (left) and behind (right) The deformation in the skull is very noticeable from above and behind. The blue plastic ring is the required seal from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. More photos of the skull can be seen on Kamtai’s Flickr page. NPS photo.

Is the deformity a result of a skull fracture that has since healed? I posed this question to Grant Hilderbrand, the regional wildlife biologist for the NPS in Alaska. Grant wasn’t able to examine the skull in person, but remarked that the deformation in the skull could have been caused by a blow to the head. Perhaps her skull was fractured when she was a yearling, and remarkably she persevered through it.

Bears are often injured. 2008 was only my second summer working at Katmai, but even by then I was used to seeing injured bears. It is common to see them with fresh wounds or even broken bones. In many, if not most, cases they
are resilient in the wake of severe injuries and get on with the business of survival.

130 Tundra (left) with her littermate in 2008
130 Tundra’s skull appears sunken above her left eye in the fall of 2008. By this time, she appeared to be healthy and normal. No observable evidence hinted that she could have suffered through a skull fracture. NPS Photo.

Apparently, her injury as a yearling was more than skin deep. This bear’s bone biography provides a record of significant injury. There is no evidence that suggests this old injury contributed to her death in 2014. Yet one fact is certain: 130 Tundra persevered through any pain or disability caused by the apparent fracture. Long ago, I was convinced that bears are extremely tough and durable animals, but for me this, perhaps final, chapter in 130 Tundra’s story only solidifies that fact.

53 Comments Comments icon

  1. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  2. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  3. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  4. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  5. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  6. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  7. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  8. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  9. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  10. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  11. Tiger C.
    December 17, 2019 at 12:27

    wow very bad injury

  12. Skyngenix Cream
    November 14, 2018 at 08:02

    My family members always say that I am wasting my time here at net, however I know I am getting familiarity daily by reading such fastidious articles or reviews.

  13. cat hat
    April 24, 2018 at 12:14

    I don't ordinarily comment but I gotta state regards for the post on this perfect one :D.

  14. February 11, 2016 at 08:07

    Would it of been possible that the yearling was attacked and bitten in the head on that side? And somehow got away from means of the mother coming to her rescue? Being young and still growing the bones would of given more.Pressure would of been intense. Were there any signs like this? Thank you

  15. February 09, 2015 at 08:33

    What a wonderful site, I will be visiting in Aug 2015, hope to see these awesome bears!

  16. February 04, 2015 at 12:03

    Thanks Ranger mike. If there were bears awake at Brooks right now , bet the Katmai would win the 10 Best places to see Wild Life survey. As it is - we do not even have a camera working there now for us addicts to watch or listen. Tundra was amazing. Thanks for keeping us informed on what's going on in our favorite place to watch life move along.

  17. January 29, 2015 at 12:17

    Thanks for all this information. Tundra was a tough girl and I feel for all she had to go thru. It makes me sad to know what she went thru then and until her death. What a great bear she was. Miss her.

  18. January 28, 2015 at 05:21

    So sad that Tundra had such a rough life and an untimely death. It makes you appreciate seeing the older bears like Otis and Four Ton thriving at their advanced ages.

  19. January 28, 2015 at 09:18

    She was such a beautiful bear! I will miss seeing her pal around with Backpack!

  20. January 26, 2015 at 04:17

    Thank you for the post about Tundra; who was loved by many that frequent the Katmai site. It is with a sad heart for those of us that watched this bear progress...and early last season she was seen "hanging out" with another favorite, Backpack and frequent bear watchers lamented what a wonderful union and what if?

  21. January 24, 2015 at 04:35

    Happy to know that her life inspired us, and her sad death will teach us. She will never be forgotten. Sweet Sweet Bear!! as I write with tears in my eyes!

  22. January 23, 2015 at 07:43

    Thank you, Ranger Mike. Tundra's death broke a lot of hearts but such is life in the wild. We know now how resilient these bears are! Thanks for all you do for the bears!

  23. January 23, 2015 at 07:04

    Thank you for the update Ranger Mike. I am sadden by her death but appreciate to know her life story.

  24. January 23, 2015 at 05:39

    Thanks ranger Mike. These posts make the park more real for those who haven't visited

  25. January 23, 2015 at 05:36

    Thank you Ranger Mike. She will be in our hearts. She gave us all wonderful memories

  26. January 23, 2015 at 04:02

    Thank You for sharing this info Ranger Mike

  27. January 23, 2015 at 12:50

    Thank you Ranger Mike. I really appreciate your insight and the way you convey it to us.

  28. January 23, 2015 at 12:22

    Thank you Ranger Mike. YES, #130 was a favorite to many of us. She was a beautiful bear and I looked forward to seeing her with her cubs! I hate that she died so young.

  29. January 23, 2015 at 10:07

    Thank you Ranger Mike . She is dearly missed by all.she was a very pretty bear and have me numerous hours of joy.

  30. January 23, 2015 at 10:07

    Thank you Ranger Mike . She is dearly missed by all.she was a very pretty bear and have me numerous hours of joy.

  31. January 23, 2015 at 05:40

    Thanks for this info Ranger Mike. Tundra was my "favorite bear" and so sad i will not get to see her in person. Hope Katmai does make shirts with her photo on them. Maybe one when she was a cub and injury showing. She was a delight to watch although never got to see her enough. I still smile when I think of her following backpack like an adolscent in first love. And sad when she tried to get close to Beadnose and Beadnose ran her away. I always wondred if she had difficulty with vision as a result of the injury.

  32. January 23, 2015 at 05:31

    May she rest in peace. Thanks for the update

  33. Cog
    January 22, 2015 at 10:32

    Thanks, Ranger Mike. Great information and photos with comments from experts. Always more questions. Sometimes, bones "lie." But in this case I think your comments are right on. Thanks.

  34. January 22, 2015 at 10:08

    Such a pretty bear thanks for the update ranger mike very interesting information.

  35. January 22, 2015 at 09:26

    Thank you for this information on Tundra. It is amazing how bears can heal from some pretty bad traumas. Tundra's unexpected (and unrelated to her early head wound)) death touched all the bear watchers.

  36. January 22, 2015 at 08:29

    You just never know...some bears have injuries that one thinks they will not survive because they are seen as insurmountable..and other injuries seem is strange for all living creatures,,,ya just never know.

  37. January 22, 2015 at 08:01

    While it was with a heavy heart the news of Tundra's death was shared, it is a great compliment to her and those that work at Katmai that her remains can and will be used to educate the public on the lives of the bears.

  38. January 22, 2015 at 07:49

    Thank you so much for sharing her story! As someone who has suffered a traumatic brain injury, I can really appreciate the strength represented by this bear. It also is a great lesson to me, that no matter what I go through, I am able to move forward just as she did. Living life to the fullest each day without complaint. LOL would love to have a t-shirt or sweat shirt with her picture on it as a mascot for those of have suffered brain injuries, reminding us, that we CAN go on. Thank you so much.

  39. January 22, 2015 at 07:47

    Thank you. Seems she was a very determined yearling. Very sad when she died last year. We had hoped to see her when we visited.

  40. January 22, 2015 at 07:44

    Thank you for the update, Ranger Mike. I miss all the rangers and especially the bears.

  41. January 22, 2015 at 07:22

    Thank you for sharing Ranger Mike.Bless her heart.

  42. January 22, 2015 at 07:05

    Ranger Mike--Bless YOU for remembering Tundra and keeping Bear Fans informed

  43. January 22, 2015 at 07:05

    I visited Katmai the past 2 years and have great pictures of her from both years. I left Katami 2 days before she was found dead. Although I am thankful I have some great pictures of her, I will greatly miss seeing her when I visit in 2015.

  44. January 22, 2015 at 06:06

    I will be at Brooks camp this July. I hope I can see Tundra's skull in person. It will be an emotional event if I do. Thankyou Ranger Mike for this story.

  45. January 22, 2015 at 05:44

    Thank you for posting this Ranger Mike. I began bear watching the week that Tundra's death was confirmed so I never got to know her as a living bear but her skull tells an amazing story. I wonder, given the deformity of her skull, the lack of other injuries when she was injured, and her eye being okay if she didn't fall or get caught in a rockfall. Just a thought

  46. January 22, 2015 at 05:00

    Thanks, Ranger Mike. She continues to teach us and inspires awe.

  47. January 22, 2015 at 04:50

    @candace & @Terra: We don’t know for sure how she died, but it’s likely that she was killed by another bear.

  48. January 22, 2015 at 04:45

    so sad but very interesting. how did she pass?

  49. GK
    January 22, 2015 at 04:39

    I never even noticed that Tundra had a scar! Thanks for the explanatory post, Ranger Mike.

  50. January 22, 2015 at 04:34

    What was 130 Tundra's likely cause of death then?

  51. January 22, 2015 at 04:34

    Poor girl, so sorry to hear this.

  52. January 22, 2015 at 04:27

    Thanks for update;I was very sad when she was found deceased. She was a very pretty bear.

  53. January 22, 2015 at 04:15

    Bless her heart. Thanks for the update Ranger Mike.

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