Fat bear cam champ returns in 2020 with a major transformation


She’s back.

And majorly transformed. The 2019 Fat Bear Week champion, bear 435 “Holly,” returned to Katmai National Park and Preserve’s Brooks River a few days ago, hundreds of pounds lighter — and with a cub. Her dramatic weight loss underscores that these wild Alaskan bears — while often seen peacefully munching on salmon or sleeping on the explore.org live-streamed bear cams — generally live harsh lives and often exhibit what us humans might call impressive resilience.

“Holly’s transformation is the product of an extreme fast,” Mike Fitz, the resident naturalist for explore.org and a former park ranger at Katmai, told Mashable.

After online voters crowned Holly the fattest of the fat bears in October 2019, she went into hibernation during the long winter famine, subsisting on her ample fat reserves. What’s more, Holly also gave birth and nursed a cub during hibernation (female bears are the only animals known to give birth and lactate while hibernating, noted Fitz).

“All that fat paid off,” Naomi Boak, the media ranger at Katmai National Park and Preserve, told Mashable. “She’s one-third the bear she was,” Boak, who’s currently stationed at the Brooks River in Katmai, added.

Holly and her cub are now expectedly skinny, but they survived the brutal winter and are now exploring the Brooks River in search of 4,500-calorie sockeye salmon.

It was far from guaranteed that Holly would come back at all this year, let alone with a cub. She’s certainly proven to be both healthy and exceptionally resilient in the past, but Holly is over 20 years old. Twenty is the life expectancy of these brown bears.

“We were wondering if she would come back because she was an older bear,” said Boak.

Raising a bear in a den is a taxing endeavor. Holly relied fully on her salmon-derived fat stores to nurse, who grew rapidly underground from about one pound to some 15 pounds. After emerging, the largely helpless cub is almost certainly eager for more food.

“It is probably more ravenous than ever,” said Fitz.

It’s unlikely that Holly will spend much time at the famous Brooks River waterfall this summer, due to the presence of dangerous and dominant large bears. As Holly has done in the past, she’ll likely stick to the mouth of the river (visible on the lower river web cams), a place that doesn’t have as fruitful of fishing spots during the summer, but is safer.

“She’s sacrificing potential fishing opportunities to give her cub a greater level of security,” explained Fitz.

“All that fat paid off.”

Overall, the 2020 bear cam season is off to a lively start. Perhaps the most famous bear on Earth, bear cam favorite “Otis” (bear 480) has arrived, along with dominant bear 856  and multiple sows with cubs (and the main surge of salmon has still yet to arrive). Many of these bears will grow enormous this summer, but Holly likely won’t enlarge as impressively as last year, because she’s fishing for two hungry bears now.

This cub is in good hands. Holly is known to be an exceptional parent. In the summer of 2014, a 1.5-year-old bear abandoned by his mother, and has since grown into a large, healthy bear (bear 503).

Life as a bear, though, generally isn’t too romantic. But Holly is an example of an Alaskan brown bear showing profound success in the wild, even with added burdens.

“Living as a bear can be a very tough life and the energetic burdens of raising cubs adds an additional challenge,” Fitz said.

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