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Salmon-eating bears

Kodiak bears are the largest in the world. An adult male can stand 10 feet tall when it rises up on its hind legs and weigh 1,500 pounds. When on all four legs it can stand 5 feet tall.

Kodiak bears live in the Kodiak Islands off the coast of Alaska. They've been isolated from other bears for about 12,000 years. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has a great page on its website filled with facts about the big bears.

One reason Kodiak bears can grow so large is that there are lots of salmon that return to the islands to spawn. When the fish return, the bears eat as many as they can.

A recent scientific study found that bears that could time their movement from stream to stream to match when fish arrive to spawn eat longer. The study estimated that one bear that was really good at surfing the salmon spawning runs ate 4,000 pounds of fish in one summer.

That's surprising when you consider that the sockeye salmon the bears eat spawn for only about 40 days. But salmon that are born in different streams return from the sea to spawn at different times.

The scientists collected their information in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge where they captured and collared 33 female bears. The collars allowed the scientists to track the bears for a year. 

At the end of those 12 months, the team recaptured 18 of the bears and took hair samples to test for mercury. Salmon absorb mercury from what they eat in the ocean, and the amount of mercury in a bear’s hair indicates how much fish it ate — the more mercury, the more salmon it ate.

Based on their analysis, the bears were eating 660 to 4,400 pounds of salmon. On average the 33 bears each ate about 2,200 pounds of fish.

— Brett French,

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