In a 10-year study of grizzly bears living in and around the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, researchers have identified a 'silver spoon effect,' where bears born in more favourable conditions end up doing better, and the study's findings suggest warming temperatures due to climate change are part of this effect.
Gathering data on grizzlies ranging from the U.S.-Canada border all the way north to Grande Prairie, 112 bears in total, an international team of researchers found that those living in the foothills of the Rockies were larger and healthier than those living further up in the mountains. This is despite the fact that the foothills have suffered more 'forest disturbances' in the form of habitat loss due to human encroachment.
"It is kind of contrary to what you would think," said study lead author Scott Nielsen, a biologist at the University of Alberta, according to the Edmonton Journal.
It might be common to think that living further away from the human population would help the bears. However, while those bears further up in the mountains definitely have a lower mortality rate, living in the foothills, with more human communities around, gives these particular access to more food. As Nielson said in a University of Alberta statement: "A simple rule is, the fatter the bear, the better."
It's not only scavenging off of us that helps the grizzlies, though. Warmer temperatures give them an edge as well, especially in the late winter, early spring seasons. Bear cubs that were born in years when late winter and early spring yielded warmer than normal temperatures, thus resulting in less snow, were able to grow larger and pack on more fat reserves for the winter. Not only does this give the bears a better chance at surviving the winter hibernation, it also increases the chances of mating and giving birth to healthy cubs the following year. In contrast, cubs born in colder years didn't do as well.
"They are on a different growth trajectory, even when they are 10, 15 or 20 years old," Nielsen told the Edmonton Journal. "Cubs born in cold weather never catch up."
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One of the conclusions drawn from this study is that the warming temperatures in Alberta and the Rocky Mountains may actually help the grizzlies to survive.
"We hypothesize that warmer temperatures in this ecosystem, especially during late winter and spring, may not be such a bad thing for grizzlies," Nielsen said in the UofA news release. "That suggests the species won't likely be limited by rising temperatures, which would lengthen the growing season and the time needed to fatten prior to hibernation."
(Photo courtesy: Parks Canada)
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