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Ask a Bear: Do You Prefer Hot or Cold?

Our resident grizzly tackles all of your burning questions in his weekly "Ask a Bear" column.

Q. Dear Mr. Bear Grizzles,
Is cold or hot weather more unbearable? ó Cadie W., via Facebook

A. Dear Cadie,

Your timing couldnít be better: Chicago has been so frigid this week that zookeepers at the Lincoln Park Zoo have kept Anana the polar bear inside. Too cold for a polar bear?! Well, clap my claws and call me Yogi Ė perhaps I hate chills most of all. But letís cut through the fuzz and get to the truth, shall we?

Picture a bear in its natural habitat. Youíre probably imagining me looking svelte, tall, and majesticóperhaps standing on a rock near a snowy mountain backdrop with the national anthem playing in the background. And while the most familiar bruin breeds to North American hikers are more plentiful in colder climates, that has more to do with where our remaining wildlands are. The reality is that Iím comfortable with a very wide range of temperatures and conditions: Black bears live in chilly Alaska and sunny Florida alike, and the grizzly bears now confined to Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington once roamed all the way to sunny Mexico. Un oso en Mexico? Fue la pura verdad!

Why canít Anana cut the cold? It turns out she doesnít eat the steady diet of seals that give polar bears the four-plus inches of subcutaneous fat that would make Chicagoís current temperatures feel like Costa Rica. In fact, since much of the year is too warm for a polar bear, her handlers keep her diet lean so she can stay cool. With that layer of fat, larger bears can overheat in even cold temperatures from running too much (which is why I usually stealth hunt those seals).

So then it would seem that heat is the temp setting I hate the most. Not so fast: Sun bears live almost exclusively in the steamy rainforests of Southeast Asia, and Asiatic black bears and potentially sloth bears also haunt the hot jungle.

How can I survive in such a wide range of temperatures? The secret comes from my fur: All my black, polar, and grizzly bear cousins have dense, thick underfur and longer, coarse guard hairs that vary in length and thickness depending on both season and climate. If itís too hot or too cold, I simply change my coat Ė just like you.

So Iím a pretty agreeable bruin overall. But in the end, if youíre looking for a hard and fast answer, Iím going to have to go with heat on a minor technicality. At the extreme end of the heat spectrum, if Iím under stress (say running from danger) and canít find a way to cool off (a drink or a dip in the river, or just stopping to let heat dissipate), there is a very remote possibility that any bear can overheat and come to eventual harm.

So I guess I'll take the cold. After all, even when the worst cold snaps hit in my natural environment, Iíll almost definitely already be sound asleep in my den, dreaming of next springís berries, seals, or salmon. Yawn.



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