Infanticide: An Ugly Side of Nature
Bears are beautiful to me. I spend a lot of time around them and enjoy learning about them by watching their behavior and studying research on bears. Over time my attitude towards bears has moved from fear of them to respect for them. This is especially true for mother bears.
Mother bears perform all the work (birthing, feeding, protecting their cubs, and hibernating with their cubs). Male bears search for females to mate with, but they eat, sleep, hibernate alone, and fight with other bears. Witnessing the infanticide of a bear cub was a behavior I wished never to see.
Adult bears are also known to kill bear cubs, including cubs from the female they impregnated. This uglier side of nature, infanticide, and the killing of baby bears by an adult (usually male) bear, is something I never wished to witness. In past years at Katmai National Park, I watched a couple of close calls where an adult tried to kill a cub.
Well, infanticide does indeed exist in nature and this past July I, unfortunately, witnessed a large male bear kill a cub, and then brutally attack the mother of the cub when she tried to intervene. Infanticide does end up with the mother also being killed in some cases.
Why Do Adult Bears Kill Cubs?
There is no one simple answer to this tough question. Research and observations currently consider three motivations for this behavior.
Sexually Selective Infanticide (SSI)
This theory claims that male bears kill cubs so the mother will no longer lactate and therefore be able to go back into estrus (“heat”). Flaws in this theory include:
- There is no guarantee the infanticidal male will get to mate with the sow whose cubs he killed.
- Putting the sow back into estrus does not guarantee that the infanticidal male will be the one mating with her, another more dominant male may end up mating with her.
- Infanticide occurs outside of mating season.
- Females sometimes kill the cubs of other sows.
Cubs as a Source of Food
Bears are cannibalistic. Even subadult and small adult female bears can fall victim to predatory attacks by larger bears. A cub may be considered an easy source of calories for a hungry bear.
Reduced Competition for Scarce Resources
Eliminating cubs is an efficient way to reduce competition for food resources and mating partners.
Infanticide occurs with bears, bobcats, mountain lions, and other mammals.
Knowing about something is much different than experiencing it up close and personal, 20 feet away!
This article tells my experience photographing a mother bear, referred to by NPS rangers at Katmai NP as “Bear 132“, and her two spring cubs (born earlier in 2018).
Just another beautiful day in July on the Brooks River. Bear 132 and her cubs in a fairly safe area downstream of the falls, floatplane over Dumpling Mountain.
The event was disturbing. I will not show many of the photos or videos I took of the event.
If you choose to read more below, please realize that I have tried to minimize the graphic photos.Read More
Finally, after prolonged rain and grayness, some sunlight made for a great day of photography. One of the highlights that day, July 3, 2018, was watching Bear 132 fishing in the Brooks River with her two spring cubs. She and her cubs were alert to and careful around other bears in the area.
Bear 132 is chasing salmon while her two spring cubs follow closely on shore. When separated from her cubs she was constantly stopping and vocalizing “huffs” to her cubs, who would answer back. She seemed to be spending equal time looking for salmon and watching her young carefully. (Photo was taken July 3, 2018).
As I watched Bear 132 in the river with her cubs the family was paying close attention whenever another bear appeared. Often the cubs would notice the appearance of another bear before the mother would, she was also busy looking for salmon.
Bear 132 checks out another bear on shore. The tall grass along the river is effective at hiding these huge bears. They pop up everywhere when you least expect it!
The “standard operating procedure” with mothers and cubs when encountering another bear is for the cubs to get behind the mother. Never get between a mother and her cubs!
Now that the potential risk of the other bear is realized, the cubs assume the safety position behind mom.
I love photographing mothers with cubs when they are in this type of situation, relatively safe away from males, and even better when the mother catches a salmon. Bear 132 was having trouble catching salmon in this part of the river. The water level was high and although there were schools of salmon, they were dispersed in deep, fast water.
Later that afternoon I went with some friends to Brooks Falls to photograph the large male bears that “own” the falls. My friends and I noticed Bear 132 with her two spring cubs downstream by the Riffles Platform.
We quickly walked to the Riffles Platform. I remember getting stuck behind some very slow walking park visitors and then another group of people stopped on the walkway who had just watched a large dominant male (Bear 856) chase another male (Bear 634) up into the forest downstream of the Brooks Falls. I had watched the initial chase between Bear 856 and Bear 634, however, did not think too much of it. These spats happen a lot between males at the falls.
Our motivation to see the cubs at the Riffles Platform resulted in us passing the slow pokes. Just as I stepped foot on the Riffles Platform Bear 856 had accidentally stumbled upon one of Bear 132’s cubs about 30 feet from the bank of the river on the upstream side of the platform. I think Bear 856 was heading back to the falls via this route and the little cub was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bear 856 quickly pinned the little cub to the ground and began biting it. My emotions quickly became enraged as this was happening. Part of me wanted to leave, part of me wanted to photograph it, but most of me just wished it was not happening. There were about three or four of us on the platform at first, it disturbed us all to realize what was happening, so close to us and in plain sight.
Bear 132 came rushing from under the walkway towards Bear 856 and attacked the tiny cub, now underneath his big head. I could see her trepidation as she approached, she knew she had to try to save her cub, however, at this point, things were not looking good.
I began photographing the attack. Unfortunately, it was very close for the lens I had on (a 100 – 400 mm focal length). Even so, I began taking photos, without taking my eye from the viewfinder I dropped the shutter speed way down since I was in the shade.
The photos are blurry and out of focus due to the close proximity, slow shutter, wrong lens, and chaos. It all happened very fast and I was confused as to what to do, whether to photograph this or not. Feeling helpless, as if I could/should really do anything. I knew to let nature take its course, although it sure did not feel right just standing there watching!
At one point I do remember Bear 856 getting off the cub and heading away from the river and underneath the walkway. I am not sure why? I do remember the cub surprisingly limping over towards the river and thinking it might actually get away and survive, but then for some reason (perhaps to find its mother?) coming back to the scene of the first attack.
At this point, Bear 856 came back and really hit the little cub hard. The cub was likely fatally wounded from this second attack. Bear 132 came back at Bear 856 and went for his neck as he tore into the cub underneath him.
Bear 856 is on top of the cub, or with it in his mouth at this point, while the mother Bear 132 tries to get him away from her cub. The size difference between Bear 856 and Bear 132 is significant!
Watching Bear 132 desperately approach the monster Bear 856 was sobering. I sensed that she knew she needed to try and save her cub, and yet it would be a serious risk for her to do so. She bit into the back of Bear 856’s neck. Quickly he rose up above the cub and looked at her like she would pay the price for doing this.
Bear 856 on the right as he comes off the cub and confronts the mother Bear 132. (low-quality blurry image).
Bear 856 attacked the mother Bear 132 ferociously. He grabbed her in his arms while she tried to bite his huge neck. In the photo below you can really see the size difference! Bear 132 is a big bear herself (see the earlier photos of her in the river). Bear 856 modus operandi of attack was biting the abdomen of both cub and mother. He bit Bear 132 while he held her in his arms and then rolled her on her back.
Bear 856 biting at the abdomen of mother Bear 132 while holding her in his arms.
Bear 856 rolled Bear 132 on her back and then literally dragged her directly underneath me on the deck of the Riffles Platform. I have witnessed many bear fights and this one sounded so bad that I was convinced he killed her.
Bear 132’s other cub had climbed to the top of a tree and cried for its mother. The mother was nowhere to be seen. Nobody got a good look at where she went or what shape she was in. Bear 856 was also gone from the scene. Sadly the mauled cub lay on its back shaking and vocalizing in its death throes. This went on for way too long.
It was time for me to leave, I had enough at this point. Meanwhile two NPS (Volunteer) bear techs rightfully closed the platform. I knew that Mike Fitz would want to know what had happened, so I hurried to the Falls Platform where he was being videotaped live. Realizing that I could not interrupt I gestured to Mike and Ranger Andrew that a fatal cub attack had just happened at the Riffles.
My friends and I left the platforms. We were shaken by this (understatement). Our discussion focused on hoping the mother Bear 132 was ok and would reunite with the cub in the tree. It was interesting to me to experience the different emotions and attitudes of other humans. The few that witnessed the attack were noticeably affected by the event. Other people were curious to hear about it and not having to witness the gore, almost excited, it seemed on the surface. I think once they saw the dead cub, and the other cub in the tree bawling for hours, the morbidness of it all sunk in.
The dead cub lay in its place for many days. This was interesting and yet strange to me. No magpies, ravens, wolves, or other bears paid attention to the carcass. Perhaps due to the involvement of Bear 856?
Bear 856 did not eat the cub. Bear 856 did not try to mate with Bear 132. From what I saw and heard, he tried to kill Bear 132. Bear 856 has a history of killing cubs at Katmai.
Bear 132’s surviving cub, remained up in the tree for a long time (hours). Later when Bear 435 (“Holly”) came by with her yearling cubs the cub came down out of the tree and hung around with Holly and her cubs until they crossed the river. At that point, the lone cub was seen crying while heading into the forest. This is interesting to me since Holly had adopted an abandoned cub in the past. Could the cub have recognized Holly and realized this, or did Holly communicate to the cub that she would not harm it? Interesting!
After experiencing the killing of Bear 132’s cub I had enough of bear photography for a while. I ended up taking another float plane into the backcountry with friends to do some packrafting and fly-fishing. My hope was that Bear 132 was ok and that she would reunite with her cub. Upon return from the backcountry trip, I was told that Bear 132 was indeed seen with her cub and she looked fine. This was great news. It was hard to believe she was visibly ok based on the attack from Bear 856.
Twelve days after the killing of her cub I was pleased to see Bear 132 and her remaining cub resting in the shade along the river. She watched for salmon from the shade while her surviving cub stayed close to her.
Bear 132 and her surviving cub 12 days after the attack.
After experiencing this horrid event up close I have even more respect for bears as a species. Now, for me, the value of a bear that reaches adulthood is even greater than it was before I saw the attack. A mother bear invests a lot in raising her young. Bears have some of the lowest reproduction rates among mammals, so even a few deaths in a population can have a significant impact on the entire species.
However, we as humans can help the bears survive is well worth it!
— John Muir
Thank you so much for your insight and recall of this tragic event. Nature is not always kind, and does not always make sense, as you have pointed out…….. this had to be a horrific experience to witness. I was emotionally distraught reading so can only imagine how you felt watching the scenario unfold. Having been to Katmai and photographed the beautiful bears and watched the cubs interact with their Moms is a wonderful lesson on the bond and behavior between them. Am so glad the Bear 132 is ok and still has one cub left to raise. I appreciate the list you provided to help the bears – as I too am a bear supporter and feel there is much we can do to help them.
You are welcome Linda, and thank you for supporting the bears! I am sorry the article is disturbing. I was on the fence about sharing the experience, or not. I chose to write about it since in the long run, I think it helps us all appreciate the bears more.
I was trying to find solace in your story—we just witnessed the violent death of the 2 little cubs living under our shed. A big male killed them while the young mother watched helplessly from high up in a tree. We could not help. We are absolutely in shock. I understand and empathize with you.
I am sorry this happened, and that you had to witness this. Although some people say, “it is nature taking its course…” it is still gut-wrenching when you witness it.
That was so interesting to me and I have enjoyed getting to know the ins and outs of bear behavior, etc. thank you for all you do and passing on valuable information to people who want to learn more about bears. I find their life and habits so interesting and find them fascinating. I witnessed online the event with 132s cub and it was very disturbing to me but know that is a part of nature and comes down to the survival of the fittest. Although a lot of nature can be very sad, I realize it’s all part of nature and how it’s all in the Master Plan of the universe. Thank you for your email!
You are welcome, Lin. Thank you for your interest in the bears and following them. The more awareness of them the better it is for them.
Mother nature is a bitch at times…..:( Intellectually “knowing” some of it and actually witnessing these awful events is entirely something else. We have to accept all of it even if we don’t like it. Glad it didn’t turn you off bears as disturbing as the event was.
So true Judy! I must admit that even now thinking about the event disturbs me. I had seen some very close calls in the past and turned away as they unfolded. In both of those cases the mother was able to defend against the attackers (one time it was a female bear as the attacker). This experience will stay with me forever, and that I appreciate in the long run since it has increased my respect and appreciation of the bears in their natural and undisturbed settings.
Very disturbing! This happens in humans and is called child abuse etc. Humans like 856 go to jail. Why don’t the rangers put it down since it has a history of such aggressive behavior? Or at least move the boar to a remote area. I am convinced that some animals are more “bad” than others like humans. Doing nothing just compounds the problem!
It is disturbing Karl. I too have thought about many of the questions you raise. The “answer” it is “just nature” is not really a complete answer. As grizzly bear habitat is being fragmented, climate effects, and other challenges, it is important to realize that since bears have such a low reproductive rate, that even small numbers (percentage) of morbidity in a bear population can have a significant impact in the overall population. They do not reproduce like rabbits or deer.
The bears that come to Brooks Falls come from far away. They are forced into a social situation, and they are anti-social. Their food drive to travel very far to Brooks Falls is a challenge in relocation, however, it is a potential option. I find it interesting to think through the motivations for infanticidal behaviors, the common “off the cuff” answer you hear/read is “so that males can put the female back in heat to mate with her”, however, after digging deeper in the research this explanation is not so convincing. It could be one of many reasons.
I do agree with you that in most species, including homo sapiens, that there are antisocial personality disorders. They have studied this in primates, and of course also in human society. Psychopathy (like) and other disorders are feasible in non-human species. Perhaps 856 is one of these cases? The science of what animals think and feel is relatively new, however, I studying some of the research now and feel it is good research and has been overdue for so long.
Thanks for the article, quite interesting. I’m a photographer. My career was in advertising photography in Dallas for many years. Now in retirement I live in the Manzanita Mountains in New Mexico. I’m 85 now but I still love to shoot. For the last couple of years I’ve been shooting mostly birds both here at my home and at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge about an hour or so south of Albuquerque.
Unfortunately we’ve been having a black bear problem here in the area. Climate change has brought us severe draught and the bears are starving. I been feeding the birds for twenty years but have had to take down my feeders because the bears looking for something to eat crush them and also present a problem for the entire neighborhood looking for anything to eat. I’ve had a mother bear and two cubs in my yard and even on my back porch. Most of us hate to call the Forest Service because that usually ends with the bear or bears getting darted and moved and the bears often come back or run into a bad situation in the new location. We can only hope for the best.
I’ve wanted to come to Katmai for a long time but have had a little health problem. I feel good now but age is creeping in but who knows, maybe some day.
I’m working on a website and will let you know when it’s done. Thanks for sharing your bear knowledge.
Thanks for sharing your bear knowledge,
Thank you, Jess, for reading the article and for your reply. Climate change is impacting the forests the bears live in, not only here in New Mexico, but many places. In the long run, forest fire scars are good for bears, as they open up dense canopy that is not the best for bears. They are mostly found in meadows, avalanche paths, and fire scars. I hope you do get up to Katmai, Brooks Camp and Lodge is a good way to do it if you are having health issues.
Ugh! Loved your blog writing, Ed, and the raw, up close images you share with the rest of us. I so admire your passion and love for nature in all her creation.
Witnessing the brutality of nature can be so horrifying. Personally, I look away even while watching nature shows on Nat Geo or The Discovery Channel let alone up close an personal. I can’t handle the brutality of a kill in nature. I know it’s there, but my tender heart has a hard time handling it. For that I’m glad.
Can’t help but add a note of caution for your own safety, Ed.
Thank you for all the absolutely stunning images you selflessly share with the rest of us. You are a treasure!
Thank you, Laurie. It is good to have a tender heart!
So sad and yet, it is nature. We know that these things happen and at some point in watching nature in the wild as we do at Katmai, this will happen in our view……..
I thank you for your in depth writing of this blog.
You are welcome Linda, you are correct, I knew that someday I would probably witness this. It is part of nature, and luckily most of nature is beautiful and enjoyable. Things like this I put in the category of educational, witnessing this has made me think more about things.
Thank you so much for this excellent post — a careful, thoughtful and insightful look at the complicated events of that evening.
Thanks for all you do to help share the stories of the bears.
You are very welcome Stacey! Hopefully, I will see you in Katmai in September?
Hi Ed, I read your account with immense interest, what a brave, honest and incredible article and experience to witness. I REALLY enjoyed it. Since I’ve lived a lot of my life in wild, remote areas I found none of this unusual or offensive. I read your story with great fascination and a curious mind, pondering the possible motivations for this behavior in bears and other species. The possible “whys” of it all intrigue me.
When I lived in the jungles of Australia (years ago when it was completely untouched and very wild) I saw so many astounding wildlife encounters. In my book I think I use the phrase “Things Eating Things”. When I first “went wild”, I was horrified by predators eating their prey, and even cannibalistic tendencies, but with time, observation and educating myself I grew to better understand and, as you said, develop immense respect for the survival skills of other species. When I really understood what it took for many species to survive I grew to revere them. I learned to NOT intervene. I began to see more and more Nature’s purpose and realized I was but an infant in my understand of such events. I felt hugely humbled by these creatures’ ability to not only survive but often thrive in a world ready to eat them, or simply just kill them.
This “awakening-into-respect” was especially potent when it was applied to highly poisonous or dangerous-to-humans species. (Which there are many of in Australia. I grew up in Maine.) Just as you mention in your article, I too shifted from fear to awareness. In fear we can tend to “react” more irrationally and are often not calm and clear thinking, we are not “choosing” our response. Wild Beings being SO highly intuitive and sensing of the world around them can easily pick up on fear. They can in some (or most) cases smell it.
And you are right. Yes, Nature is sublime and beautiful to the point of exquisiteness. It is healing, soothing, and for one like me, it is my very Life. BUT….Nature also is VERY real, unabashed, brutal, whether that is a class 5 cyclone or a raging forest fire (which I’ve been through) or a saltwater crocodile that has developed a taste for human flesh or it simply mistakes a crouched human for its natural food of feral pig or wallaby), or a nest of inch long ants that can jump 3 feet into the air and bites from 30 of them can kill you). Yes, Nature is ALL of it. I think that is what I find so endlessly compelling. Thank you for taking the time to share this incredible story.I found your Facebook page and will check out your website.
Thank you for your insights and comments! Very interesting. I will check out your book, it sounds right up my alley.
Fear can really mess with humans minds, and fear is now used to help sell things (guns, knives, etc.), and in the log run fear is probably the most dangerous thing. Respect for apex predators and their home is the key (I am sure you know this based on your experience).
Thanks again Robin!
Hi Ed I read most of your article when Melissa first posted the link in the Brooks Falls group. I finally got the guts to read it entirely tonight. Thank you for your account and the way you presented it. We were at Brooks falls from July 1st to 4th and I was on the Brooks Falls platform when the two board took off. My partner had returned to the camp earlier so I decided to walk back when a large group headed back. I arrived at the Riffles confused by the sounds from in the tree and the volunteers had already closed the platform. You must have already headed to get Mike and Andrew. The aftermath of the scene was awful enough to view and I am sorry you witnessed the event in so much detail and I can understand to a much deeper level the look of horror on the faces of the couple who had seen it and were still in the treehouse area. I realise the memories you have are much sharper and deeper and more desperate than the small amount I saw but I have tried to console myself -especially that first night by realising the awe of nature – even when it is ugly. Very ugly. The new parts to the story I learnt from your article make the scene even tougher than what I had imagined. But it also makes me amazed at the strength and dedication from 132. I am glad to have read this (and very quickly) looked at the pictures. I remember that next morning the sombre feeling in the dining hall at breakfast and someone saying that they didn’t much feel like taking photos of bears for awhile. Thanks again.
Thanks for reading the article and sharing your experience. We must have just missed each other, after I told Mike and Andrew I headed back with two friends, one of which was right next to me during the horror, the other, my friends mother, we yelled at to stay back and not witness the killing. We were in tears on the way back down the falls trails.
It was sobering to experience and still to this day there are many photos and video that I took during the killing that I do not look at. I did give all my photos and video to NPS for the sake of documentation.
You are on correct about the strength and dedication of Bear 132. As I watched her approach Bear 856 with her cub underneath him I could really sense her desire to do “something”. She tried hard to do so, however with his size he overpowered her. I was convinced she had suffered a fatal attack. Luckily, I was wrong, and strangely it was hard to see any external damage on her, although I am betting she had internal injuries and her underside, which is hard for us to see most times, she might have scars we cannot see. I bet she has emotional scars.
It may have been me that next morning saying they were not interested in taking any more bear photos. It did affect me, and still does.
The event upset many people. In the long run that does carry some positive learning, at least I know it does for me. What can we as humans do, if anything? Surely, infanticide does happen way out in the wilderness, far from human impact and influence. My view is that just being at Brooks Camp does impact the bears some. They adjust their behavior due to the presence of humans. Now I realize, more so than before, that when I see a mother with cubs, I need to really think how can I minimize her stress, danger, and energy expenditure? Are my behaviors, or location, going to influence her to move into an area that is less safe?
As you probably remember, Amanda, there were a lot of bears at the falls, and downstream of the falls, that night. Whenever I see a mother bring cubs, especially spring cubs, towards the falls or riffles, I start to worry. I was suprised to see her, from my position on the Falls Platform, show up with the cubs at the Riffles Platform. Why did she feel the need to bring the family there? We will never know for sure. However, some possible factors to consider include, she was not catching any fish downstream, she was pushed there by other bears, or did not feel comfortable with people downstream in the river; and chose to go to the riffles with her cubs instead. Probably all of the above were influence factors.
In September I will be back to Brooks Camp, and some more remote parts of the park. I am looking forward to seeing a healthy Bear 132 and her fat spring cub. I hope that happens 🙂
Ed thanks for your reply. If 856 had attacked a human, even if it was a human who got too close, the Rangers would have killed it because it a Dangerous animal and tasted human blood! Yet it is “ok” to kill one of its own kind ! Reminds me of the Police in Chicago watching the gang killings. As long as it doesn’t spill over in white suburbia. I am a cynic. Double standards in life!
Thanks Karl. Most of the time I do not support killing a bear that attacks a person, especially when it was the person’s fault due to intentional bad behavior on the human’s part. It is complicated for sure and there are no easy answers.
So sorry you had to witness that horrific act of mother nature but I am grateful that you shared the reality of your experience with us, and am particularly grateful for your mercy in not exposing us to the visuals that I imagine scar you to this day. Just your words reduced me to tears. Life can be cruel and unfair ~ whether you are a human or an animal. I so love all your photography, you really allow us to share to beauty, majesty and raw power of the bears and I always enjoy it. Can’t say I really enjoyed this post (except for the post attack Mother and cub photo – yay for the under dog) but you keep it real and I so appreciate that. I hope it time this incident dims in its horror and you are left with overwhelming images of all the amazing, beautiful encounters you’ve had. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I love all your landscape photos as well. I continue to hope you’re working on a coffee table book!!! Take care.
Thank you for reading the article and for your kind compliments. Writing this article was hard, bringing back memories of some bad stuff, however, I felt the need to share the experience, perhaps so we can all appreciate how valuable wildlife is to the world.
Great blog, you have a keen eye as well, thank you ED,
Mother Nature rules in AK, as it should be.
Yea well Karl Chiang, I would like to invite you to study the subject a little more before making such outlandish, and frankly false claims. Misleading others with false information is unacceptable in my world. If you in fact do take the time to study the subject, you will then learn the truth. I hope you will one day, learn the truth.
Very informative, riveting, insightful account of this incident – as it was thankfully not on the Bearcam it is good to have a first hand account of what happened without sensationalizing or minimizing the events – 856 killing the cub was horrible but I in know way think he is a psychopath or needs to be ‘put down’ as one of the comments said – as far as we know he has never so much as breathed hard on a human, if he had he would of been ‘relocated’ or worse a long time ago – I think he is just a hyper dominant bear who’s life is centered on staying at the top of the hierarchy, while most of the other bears top priority is eating – but he mostly goes after the other boars and generally leaves the subs alone, it’s the new born COYs that send 856 over the edge from time to time for some reason, and nobody can say for certain what that reason is.
Thank you for your blog and beautiful photography. I only learned today that male bears oftentimes eat their own cubs or another bear’s cubs in order to maximize their reproductive success. Crazy stuff. Anyway, you do a very solid job of captivating your reader with excellent photography skills and strong writing too.
Thank you, Charlotte. Watching this male bear kill the cub, and almost kill the mother bear, was horrific. I realize it is “part” of nature, which can be harsh sometimes.