Sunday, April 02, 2006
News-Journal photos/DAVID TUCKERMAMA! A bear cub cries out in its den hidden in a big thorn thicket in the Ocala National Forest on Wednesday, as a University of Florida graduate student scares away the mother and moves in to remove the cubs for examination.
BOY OR GIRL? Aletris Neils, a University of Florida graduate student, checks the sex of a cub held by Natalia Borrego. The team first thought it was a male, but after closer inspection Neils decided it was really a sister to the male cub veterinarian Mark Cunninghamis checking in the background.
HEAD TIME: The bear study team measures the head of a bear cub. After being thoroughly examined, the cubs are fitted with radio tracking collars, which are designed to grow with the cub and fall off when it reaches a certain size.
The cub resented the man plucking a pinch of hair, taking blood and checking to see if the equipment that makes him a boy bear was in its proper place.
Walt McCown, a state bear biologist, just chuckled as he clutched the cub and continued checking tasks off a list.
McCown and a group of his co-workers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were examining the cub and its sister with the help of two University of Florida graduate students to learn more about bears and their babies.
Hair condition? Good.
Ear length? This, combined with hair length, gives them the approximate age.
Tail length? Yes, they do have tails you just don’t normally see them.
Teeth? “Ouch,” said a grimacing Aletris Neils, the graduate student with her fingers inside one cub’s mouth. Canines, incisors and molars!
The work moves quickly. The clock starts ticking the moment mama bear leaves the den and the biologists only allow themselves 45 minutes before the cubs must be back in the den. They want to make sure she doesn’t abandon her cubs.
Lots of things are known about adult black bears: what they eat, for example. It’s often easy to know where they go. Call it telephone tracking.
People see a bear and call the state, especially when bears get into backyards and dog food bowls.
But, much is not known, like how mother bears raise their cubs, especially when human homes are nearby, and why cub mortality is high.
That’s why McCown, Neils and a half-dozen others were crawling through brush in a canopy of scrub oaks in the Ocala National Forest last week. It’s important to know more to make good management decisions, they say, such as when and where to move bears, or what other steps are needed to protect them.
The commission is sponsoring two research projects with the graduate students. Essentially, they’re trying to “get inside the heads” of mother bears to learn about the places they choose to make dens and what they teach their babies, especially about humans.
For example, the bears examined Wednesday were in a den a short distance off busy State Road 40, near a house with a noisy dog. Why, they wonder, would she pick that spot?
The bear was one of Neils’ study subjects. She’s studying the behavior of bears that live close to people.
A study by the other student, Kim Annis, tracks bears that lived too close to people and were relocated to other areas. Those bears are sometimes called nuisance bears, moved to the forest or another out-of-the-way location when they start spending too much time in garbage cans.
She wants to know if the female bear, when she leaves the den with her cubs, goes into areas foraging in garbage cans and teaching her cubs to do the same? They’re also studying whether relocated bears breed and produce cubs in the season after they’re moved.
A third study, by the commission’s veterinarian Mark Cunningham, is looking at mites that get onto the skin of bears and cause them to lose their hair. Cunningham had seen this female bear before with almost no hair and was interested to see if the mite moved to her cubs.
The cool part of the studies is snuggling with the cubs, but much more time is spent preparing to “borrow” the cubs and then getting to the den, which they find through signals from collars on the mother bears.
Only a couple of people actually go to the den. The others hang back in a “work-up” spot. On Wednesday, that group kept silent, pointing out the ticks crawling on each other’s clothes and other fauna: an eastern tiger swallow-tailed butterfly, green anole, vireo and chickadee.
It’s slow going for the person trying to grab the cubs: snipping through thick underbrush and trying not to scare the mother away until the last possible moment to give them as much time as possible with the cubs.
Mother bears don’t stick around to defend their cubs, in part, because they’re still lethargic from a lack of movement during the winter, Annis said. And their instinct is to save themselves, she said.
But they always come back, “because they’ve invested so much time and energy in the cubs.”
After a brief bluff charge at Neils on Wednesday, the mother bear retreated to an unseen but nearby spot.
Neils ducked into the thick briar patch and grabbed first one cub and then the other.
The biologists were fitting the bears with collars designed to expand to a certain size and then fall off. By flying over the area where the bears are released, the scientists will be able to track where the cubs go and what they do.
As for the one cub’s pouty expression, bear biologist Brian Scheick said it’s a typical gesture big bears make to scare people away.
But on a cub, Scheick said, “It’s funny.”