That was my seal carcass


I watched quite a good show on the Discovery Channel last night, about grizzly bears. A crew got (we were told) closer than anyone ever before had gotten for an extended period to a bunch of grizzlies at a bay in Alaska where more grizzlies gather than anywhere else. They gather for the salmon.

I confide this bit of gossip to you for a reason. I noticed an interesting thing – not at all surprising, but interesting. It’s a hard life being a bear. You have to pack in the food in order to survive the winter. You can’t decide oh well it’s ok I’ll just keep hunting all winter, because you’ll be hibernating instead.

It’s a hard life, so naturally it’s a competitive life. The males grab food away from the females.

One unfortunate seal got into shallow water and was surrounded by bears so couldn’t get out again, and a female killed it and carried it off. The biggest male followed her, she tried to outrun him for a bit but when that didn’t work she just gave up. The male buried the seal on the beach…at low tide. (The tv crew wryly noted that he had more brawn than brains.) The tide came in, and next morning the seal was gone. The male bear sniffed around the burial spot, and considered killing the tv crew in case they’d done it, and then wandered off and went fishing. Then the seal carcass washed up and a different female, with a cub, found it. A different male came ambling up to take it away from her, and she fought him. The tv crew advised against this, and after he knocked her around a bit she did give up.

That’s life with the bears.

All those big tough males who take all the food off the females – they’re there because their mothers managed to get enough food for both of them to survive. The whole thing depends on the females and their cubs surviving, but the males simply grab the food when they can. It’s a wonder any of them survive to grow up.

(Then again because of the salmon it’s a crowded spot. Bears usually don’t crowd together. The salmon is abundant but the crowding means that females don’t get to keep big carcasses. It would be interesting to know if it all balances out for the females or if they would do better elsewhere.)

It reminded me of Haiti after the earthquake, when men simply pushed and shoved in the food lines and women and children couldn’t get any food.

Pitiless Nature.

Comments

  1. says

    That’s part of what it made me think about, of course. We have the instinct, and we also have the higher order thinking skills to conceive the idea that we ought not to, and to pass it on. We even have some instinct not to do things like that, and some instinct to help even strangers, which you don’t see bears doing.

  2. Brian E says

    The female bears not only raise the males, they choose the most brutish males to father the next generation. It’s all about the genes. In an analogous (probably a bad analogy) situation, lots of women marry brutish guys, and raise their sons to be brutish and treat women and kids as crap. I believe it’s called patriarchy.

  3. kevinalexander says

    lots of women marry brutish guys, and raise their sons to be brutish and treat women and kids as crap. I believe it’s called patriarchy.

    And lots of women don’t. It’s called civilization and it’s winning. So far, slowly but surely.

  4. says

    That’s part of what it made me think about, of course. We have the instinct, and we also have the higher order thinking skills to conceive the idea that we ought not to, and to pass it on. We even have some instinct not to do things like that, and some instinct to help even strangers, which you don’t see bears doing.

    My kids are spoiled brats.
    Not spoiled brats as in they get everything they want, but in they get everything they need and lots more. They’re living a middle-class life. If they want ice-cream while we’re on a daytrip or at the playground the question is whether I think they should have any. It’s not whether I can afford to spend two bucks on ice-cream.
    So I’m trying to instill some perspective into them, because clearly, they believe that their life is the norm. So they were a bit surprised to hear that some of their friends’ parents don’t have a car.
    My three year old’s first reaction was “We’ll lend them ours, because it makes it much easier to get around”.
    But they’ll also knock another kid over because they want the sandshovel….

  5. lorn says

    From another point of view we aren’t all that advanced. There was money and resources for homeless families and single parent households before the great white leader decided that he need to look more powerful than his father and set upon invading Afghanistan and Iraq to highlight his power and control. This shifted a couple of trillion dollars away from hearth and home in the US to war and warlords in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    We tend to dress it up and confuse the issue with rhetoric, mansplaining, fancy graphics, and reams of numbers but the effect is pretty much the same. The powerful snatch up whatever they want, even if they have no immediate need or way of using what they hoard, and the women and children get whatever is left over.

    In some ways the grizzlies are more honest. They grab what they want without apology and without layering on the hypocrisy of claiming that taking the food away is justified by some higher purpose or, most galling, it is somehow good for them.

  6. Nathair says

    It’s called civilization and it’s winning. So far, slowly but surely.

    It certainly does appear that way living, as we do, in a time of so many seal carcasses that we casually throw away as many as we eat but when the bottom falls out; Haiti, Rwanda etc.

  7. michaelpowers says

    I was raised to believe that, when everything else is stripped away, it was the males function to ensure the survival of the female and children. Because of the two, nature considers the male slightly more expendable. Say, in the case of a predator, it would give the female time to escape, or get themselves in a better position to fight.

    Yeah, I know it’s sexist, and I suppose if a woman wanted to hate me for it, she’d have every right. It’s my hope that she would be around later to do so.

    Being human, there are, of course, exceptions. Some women are born warriors. Some men are not. Both can become skilled in such things with training.

  8. says

    Strictly speaking the male is more expendable, in the sense that one male can impregnate many females. In a population crunch, females become very valuable (but not more powerful or better treated).

  9. quixote says

    Since we’re talking about biology and natural selection, I just have to biologically butt in. I’ve been teaching this stuff for decades, and there are a couple of common misconceptions here that get my goat.
    .
    1) Going back to the popularizations of Darwin: the whole “Nature red in tooth and claw” thing. No. Nonsense. It makes eye-grabbing television, but it’s not what evolution is about. The motto for evolution is “whatever works,” with “works” defined as whatever allows you to have offspring that themselves reach reproductive age.
    .
    2) Sometimes bloodshed works. For carnivores and their prey, for instance. Intraspecific food competition, especially against females, especially in large social mammals tends not to work. The associated cost is too high and that means less offspring. In biospeak we talk about selective pressure against that strategy.
    .
    3) That behavior tends to manifest only in exceptional situations, such as that salmon run, or in zoos, or under conditions of extraordinary environmental stress. It is abnormal behavior. It says absolutely nothing about what “works” as an evolutionary strategy.
    .
    4) It demonstrably does NOT work as a long term, i.e. evolutionary, strategy for any large social mammal. There have been umpteen field and lab studies done on this, and yet the popular narrative always goes back to Nature red in tooth and claw. Aargh. Just aargh.
    .
    Plus the evidence from human societies is immediate and in front of us all the time. Haiti, males grab food from females, still barely recovering from earthquake. Japanese, nobody grabs food from anybody, recovered within two years from much more devastating natural disaster. Etc., etc., etc. (I’m not saying Japanese society isn’t repressive or wealthy. Only that they could have obviously made it much worse for themselves if they hadn’t worked together.)

  10. says

    But isn’t that what I was saying? I thought it was. I was musing on the surprisingness of males regularly grabbing food from females, and then I remembered that this site is especially crowded with bears, so it’s not a usual bear thing (from my very limited knowledge of bear life).

    I forgot to mention that it was a bad year – it had been a very long cold winter and the bears were all in bad shape as a result.

    I didn’t mean to over-generalize. [sits on naughty stool]

  11. says

    I’d also point out that bears are solitary. They’re not social animals. Their behaviors aren’t oriented around living in groups, communicating, resolving conflicts, sharing labor and resources. They normally only overcome their aggressive territoriality briefly when mating.

    Of course if they were social they would most likely be hierarchical, so the big males would still eat first. Evolution would just balance that cost against the quite significant benefits of group living.

  12. quixote says

    Ophelia, I wasn’t intending to say aargh at your post (although on re-reading I can see it that way. Sorry!) I was flying into a lather over the presentation of it on TV.

    And, yes, bears are solitary. Again, effects of typing too quickly when lathered. That point 2) was supposed to be just “large mammals.”

  13. says

    Oh right. I get it. (I did keep reminding myself while watching that of course they were showing the dramatic stuff and omitting everything else.)

    The fact that it seems like such a terrible strategy is what got my attention. It’s touch and go for the cubs, and then the males make it even worse. That can’t work very well, I thought.

  14. =8)-DX says

    So, based on the comments here, would it be safe to say something along the lines of: normally evolution would deal with this problem in a social species by having the males kill off male cubs they haven’t sired (or outside their pack), thus increasing the food for “their” females and cubs. Oh and then you could have an alpha-male (strongest, largest, has eaten and gets to eat the most) choosing the pecking order, ensuring “his” female(s) and cubs get the most food?

    So if bears were a social mammal, rather than a solitary one, this wouldn’t happen?

    Also, what would happen if the bears’ ONLY means of survival was in similar salmon spots? Could this lead to some kind of tribe-like structure around the salmon hotspots? Would some kind of food-distribution/dividing system evolve? (OK, I’m sorry, I admit it: I was fantasizing about turning bears into intelligent, empathetic, social humanoids so we can travel into space with them as crew-members).

  15. says

    So if bears were a social mammal, rather than a solitary one, this wouldn’t happen?

    Perhaps, but if that were happening, you could be pretty confident that there would also be plenty of females running off to make whoopee with the lower status males when the alphas weren’t paying attention.

  16. Snoof says

    Strictly speaking the male is more expendable, in the sense that one male can impregnate many females.

    For many organisms, sure, but there are exceptions. Angler-fish are _strictly_ monogamous, what with the male permanently implanting itself into the female’s body. Also seahorses, where the male is the one which carries the fertilized eggs to term inside its body. Zoology is fascinating that way.

  17. quixote says

    DX @15: the jist is that evolution deals with any problem that causes a species to produce fewer offspring who survive to reprodcutive age. Males stealing food from cubs would be one such problem. Very strong selective pressures against that. Males stealing food from females is somewhat less direct, but has the same effect in species where females take care of the young. (I wonder how it works in seahorse species where males incubate and care for the young? Do females tend not to steal food from them? If that research hasn’t been done, it needs to be!)
    .
    Bears are such a large mammal and therefore live so close to the edge that I don’t think they can afford to kill off any young for “personal” reasons. (Don’t know that for sure.) But in langur monkeys, for instance, there’s exactly that sort of infanticidal behavior on the part of males trying to get rid of males’ offspring. As usual, if you want to argue about what’s natural, you can find an argument for any behavior in one species or another.

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