His “huff”s spurred us into action. Those deep exhalations focused through his enormous vocal cords could mean a charge in the wild, so we picked up our pans, our spoons, our forks, and began a racket.
It was the steaks. Those juicy, aromatic slabs of delight had been cooked to take our minds off our aching knees, our tired eyes and our sun-burnt fingers. I’d joined a team of zoologists and geologists from the University of Pittsburgh and we’d been hunting fossils for just over two weeks, isolated in the endless rocky sea of Wyoming. I’d soon found that lunches of peanuts, ‘summer sausage’ and crackers could only carry you so far and after initial success, our disparate party of museum workers and wide-eyed students was slowing down. As the pasty, skinny Brit of the pack I, for one, was tiring of the heat, the daily thunderstorms and the razor-sharp mandibles of the deer flies that preferred my pink skin to everyone else’s.
My consolation so far had been the landscape: for all the beauty Britain had revealed to me over my twenty-six years, she couldn’t compete with the desolate majesty of the American desert. Here, Wyoming seemed to roll off into the sky, waves of limestone breaking over each other, pierced by pronghorns, coyotes and wild horses sneaking glances at our jeep as it crashed towards them before they dived away, back into their ocean of rock.
Tonight, however, called for more than geophilia. Fieldwork could be a thrill, but it could also be thankless. The momentary elation I felt when finding a shining, jet-black tooth offering itself to you after waiting forty million years within its sedimentary blanket wasn’t too common. After hours staring at crumbling grey, our necks arched downwards, our hand-lenses still cased-up, we’d found nothing that day. Not even Chris, our team leader and our only professional palaeontologist, had won anything from the greenish band we’d been tracking. Spirits were low. So low, even Alan’s Neil Young renditions weren’t raising them. Tomorrow would be better, so long as we all drank beers, built a beautiful fire – and cooked the steaks.
But we weren’t the only ones with noses and an appetite. Despite a lack of whiskers and its tiny daylight-adapted eyes, the black bear that snuck quietly into our camp boasted a sense of smell a thousand times more sensitive than mine. In fact, zoologists recently reported that bears may have the most highly tuned ‘olfactory’ sense of any mammal, even beating their Carnivoran cousins, the dogs. This wasn’t a fossil, but my terribly British exclamation of ‘Oh my goodness… a bear!’ meant we were soon all studying it as intently as anything we’d stumbled across in the dirt.
For a while, I thought this was a brown bear, but not all black bears are black. In more northern areas, where interactions with brown bears are more common, black bears are more likely to be brown in order to avoid predation from the larger species. But the straight-line slope of its nose had revealed its identity. The lighter coat of this bear was probably an adaptation to the semi-arid landscape just beyond the forest we’d camped on the edge of, hoping the Acer trees would shield us from the evening wind. However, our campsite was obviously within this bear’s home range, and our dinner would be a tasty addition to the fruit it had been foraging.
Despite their fierce dentition, huge size and non-retractable claws, this bear had been feasting on a diet of berries and nuts. Their vision is well developed to seek out fruits from scrub, which they can then tease away from plants with their lips, coarse hair protecting them from any prickles the bushes might have evolved to keep them away. But berries are low in protein and this was July, within their mating season. If this was a male, and judging by its size we all quietly agreed it was, then a steak was an exciting find indeed. Bears aren’t as solitary as they are usually thought to be and it was likely our guest was exhausted after a hectic few months chasing girls. Unluckily for us, this also meant his testosterone levels would have been much higher than usual and an attack could be likely. We hadn’t expected his bluff. In fact, less than forty people across North America have been killed by bears in the last hundred years, but our exhaustion had made us lazy and foolish.
Weeks later, with my macbook on my lap in a dining room in Salt Lake City, I came across the National Park Service’s ‘Your Safety in Bear Country’ website. As I read more and more of the PDFs, the more I realised how idiotic our first response had been. Everywhere I read phrases like “Do not shout or make sudden movements,” as startling bears was the very worst line of defense.
In Cambridgeshire the only ‘large’ mammals I ever had to worry about were the muntjak deer that could jump out from the botanical gardens as you were cycling home at two in the morning. But the yanks I was with, surely they should have known better? Although, at least we’d “back[ed] away slowly… [as] often times, slowly putting distance between yourself and the bear will defuse the situation,” and besides, at least this boy was a Brown Bear and – I later discovered, with appreciation – no where near the size of a Grizzly.
I’m not sure how long we looked at each other: it could have been a minute, it could have been an hour, but finally he decided against a fuss and his thick frame turned and waltzed back into the forest, his weight rocking on enormous, flattened feet.
Just before he dissolved away into the gloaming, standing on his hind limbs, towering over my tent, I realised just how defenseless we had really been, how imposing and stupefying his presence had seemed, and how inviting a vegetarian option now sounded.
Black and white bear photograph courtesy of The Field Museum Library on Flickr Creative Commons