My Amazing Time in Grad School-Thesis

Seeing as how adventure is in my blood, and “Wild” is my middle name, it only seems fitting that my graduate degree in Biology consisted of a thesis in which I got to follow and document the behavior of the largest carnivore I could find: The American Black bear.

Ok, ok so they aren’t TECHNICALLY carnivores. They are true omnivores, eating whatever they can find, BUT they are in Order Carnivora, so people think they are scary. Which they are. Kinda.

Anyway, this is how it all got started:

I heard about a month-long class I could take over the summer, in which you go to San Jose, Costa Rica and study monkeys. (Seriously, this is how it started). The course was called Primate Behavior and Conservation, and it was through DANTA. My parents didn’t really want me going down there by myself, but ones to NEVER restrict my adventures and education, my dad decided to go with me.  We would site-see for a few days, then I would meet up with the course people, and he would fly back home.  This will all be in a separate post later, because it was definitely an adventure. Unfortunately all but about 7 of my pictures got corrupted, so I don’t have anything to show you really. Sorry.

Anyway, with this class we learned a bunch of stuff, which I then brought back with me to the desert of West Texas, where I was going to school. A few days after I got back, I was taking another course for my degree called Desert Zoology. It was the best class I have ever taken. Basically, it was a hiking-until-the-prof-sees-something-worth-talking-about class, so we hiked and camped for a month. HOW GREAT IS THAT?! When we went to Big Bend National Park we saw a female bear in an oak tree with 4 cubs. Seriously, they were just hanging out in a tree above the trail.

The family that started it all

I told my prof and my BF (now Hubby) that I didn’t want to leave-I could seriously watch them all day long. My prof said, “that’s your thesis project.” See, I had been trying to come up with project ideas, and things kept falling flat, but this was the sudden epiphany I needed. My next thoughts to my BF were scrambled thoughts of working at a zoo somewhere, observing the feeding behaviors of Polar bears in captivity, Polar bears in the wild, wild lion behavior in Africa…I went on and on floating on a cloud of excitement about my future in Conservation. I was stoked.

Basically, I was going to be observing the bears for typical behaviors, which I categorized and provided detailed descriptions of.  Next I actually got to go to the park and find the bears. This sounds a lot harder than it sounds a lot easier than was just as difficult as it sounds.

But on my first day, first thing in the morning, Hubby was making breakfast and I was getting ready to hike, when he popped his head into the tent and said, “There’s a bear!”

I HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO DO.

I had planned all this out to the letter, but when it came time to it, I was hoping I was doing it right. Then I thought, well, it’s my research, so damnit, I am doing it RIGHT!

The next few months, I saw a lot of black figures through the trees like this:

Sow with two cubs

 Summer wasn’t so great. I didn’t see them much, but no one else did either. My personal theory was they went down to Mexico to cool off with a couple Coronas. Prove me wrong.

But I did get a lot of people asking what I was doing, and asking me if I was scared. Not once was I scared of the bears. I actually always felt safe with them. I mean, don’t get my wrong-I’m not going to be turning into Grizzly Man or anything, but the Black bears are used to human activity in the park, they are not aggressive, and I kept my distance. Even when I was heading back up the trail to camp one evening, after I had stayed on the trail a bit too long and it was getting dark. A large bear came up and met me on the trail. She (I’m assuming) stared right at me, then kept walking. It was A.MAZ.ING.

There was one time, when hiking high in the mountains with my BF that a bear got mad at us.  We didn’t even see him, because he was up the hill above us, and sleeping under a tree.  We would have walked right past him, but he sat up to look at us as we were walking, and caught our attention.

He did not like us watching him.

Black bears do a lot of huffing and puffing to try to scare people away but of course, I wasn’t going anywhere. We backed off a bit to give him his space, but it wasn’t good enough. He was still shaking branches and puffing at us, so we backed off some more. By this time, we were thinking, ‘ok, we need to go forward to get off the mountain. He does not want us to go forward. S!$t.’ He moved off a bit, to the other side of the small hill, so we thought he had gotten sick of us and left.  We grabbed our stuff that we had carefully put down while observing the bear, and speed-walked past where he had been. I looked back and he was standing there, (much closer to the trail than he had been), and we just kept going. That is why I said bears are scary. Kinda.

This little guy was my favorite through the whole study:

Yearling male

I saw him in the morning and watching him until the heat of the day when he wandered off. I came back in the afternoon and before I got to him I heard screaming and rocks further down the trail. A couple came back up the trail and this was the conversation:

Stupid people: “I wouldn’t go down there if I were you. There is a bear cub, but we didn’t see the Momma.”

Me, the amazing researcher:”I’m pretty sure I know who you are talking about, and he’s not with Mom anymore. He’s on his own.”

Stupid people: “Oh…can we follow you?”

After which they proceeded to ruin the video I was taking of him, by asking questions while I was filming. Thanks guys. I’m sure Discovery Channel has the same problems.

I also loved this guy:

JEFE-THE BIGGEST BLACK BEAR I HAVE EVER SEEN

I call him Jefe.  I know you can’t tell it in the picture, but this guy was HUGE. And he was hilarious. For all you non-behavioral studies types, I will explain something to you.  In the wild, animals usually survive on a feast-or-famine diet.  They attempt to spend as little energy as possible while obtaining their food, because they will need the fat they put on for when times are tough. (You know, the thing most Americans never have to worry about, and wonder why they can’t lose weight-your body “thinks” it should keep all that weight on, just in case).

Anyway, so by spending as little energy as possible, this HUGE bear was laying down under an oak tree, consuming every acorn he could reach.  Then he got up, turned around, layed back down, and continued to graze on the plethora of acorns. (Yes, I would say he had a plethora). I couldn’t believe how lazy he was! But I guess you don’t get that big by wasting time and energy.

The best part was, this whole time, I was standing on the other side of the tree, about 30 or so feet away. He knew I was there, but he didn’t really care. The area he was laying in was right next to the hiking trail, so when a couple came around the corner back up the trail, he freaked out from the sudden noise (Now do you see why I’m not scared of Black bears?) and ran away down the creek (the hikers almost ran too). Then all of a sudden, he stopped, sat down for a few seconds (pictured) and then slowly got up and walked away in the direction he had been about to run.

So, my observation was Jefe got a freakin’ head rush from standing up too quick! Seriously.

I saw some great things while doing this research, and I got to learn a lot:

I learned I don’t really like camping by myself, because it gets boring and creepy at night.

I learned that bears are actually pretty easy to predict.

and I learned that when you are on high-alert for Mountain lions, deer will scare the crap out of you every time.

The Chisos Mountains – My weekend home during the research project
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