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Bearpacker is Backpacker’s annual celebration of bear safety, science, and stories.
In the footage, the camera bounces along the forest floor, weaving between fallen logs and bright yellow hen-of-the-woods mushrooms as sunlight filters through the canopy above. A long, furry snout carves a black V out of the top of the frame, sniffing and huffing. The only other sounds are the crunch of four large paws on the dried oak leaves below.
The snout and paws belong to a wild black bear living in the forests of Virginia. Researchers captured the bear, equipped it with a collar-mounted GoPro, and released it as part of a study that’s trying to crack a surprisingly enduring mystery: What do bears do all day? The answer could determine how state and local governments deal with them and help scientists get a better understanding of one of our biggest, wildest neighbors.
If the bears are cinematographers, then Brogan Holcombe is their director. Holcombe, a master’s student at Virginia Tech, got her bachelor’s degree from the university before enrolling as a graduate student in January 2020. Along with Dr. Marcella Kelly, a professor in the school’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Holcombe has studied hibernation in bruins at the school’s Captive Bear Research Facility, monitoring their behavior by video 24/7 to help understand when and how they slip in and out of their seasonal sleep.
By equipping wild bears with cameras, Holcombe and Kelly hope to shed some light on bears’ quotidian activities. Hundreds of thousands of black bears call the Lower 48 home. But for how closely we coexist with bears—and how much anxiety they provoke in hikers and game managers—Holcombe says that we know relatively little about how they spend their days.
“We know that they eat these kinds of foods and those kinds of things, [but] we don’t know how they allocate their time,” Holcombe says. “Do they rest a lot of the day and forage only at dawn and dusk?” The cameras will provide her team a chance to see the world from a bear’s perspective, literally.
Aside from scientific curiosity, Kelly says, knowing more about bears’ habits can help inform the management decisions that wildlife departments make—whether to increase or eliminate bear hunting seasons, and how to time them to preserve deer populations, for example.
“We had done a study previous to this that picked up scat samples, and we found a lot of deer hair. Now with the GoPros, we can see if they’re actually eating and killing fawns,” she says. “And also, do they get into any issues with human-wildlife conflict? Like, are they getting into people’s garbage cans, or are they getting into their bird feeder?”
To get the cameras onto the bears, Holcombe and Kelly teamed up with Robert Alonso, an expert trapper who’s also a PhD student studying carnivores at Virginia Tech. The team set foot snares throughout the bears’ habitat, securing them in the ground with rebar. When a trap caught a bear, the team would dart it with a tranquilizer and fix it with a camera- and GPS-equipped collar before setting it loose. After several weeks, the collars would automatically release, leaving the team to track down the GPS signal and retrieve the collar. Holcombe has had to crawl into dens to retrieve collars; on one occasion, she and Alonso followed a collar’s signal only to discover the hibernating bear was still sleeping next to it. (They came back later in the season.)
After loading up the cameras’ SD cards, Holcombe and Kelly were left with a window into the private life of bears. Rather than recording continuously, the cameras were programmed to shoot 10 seconds of footage every 20 minutes. The resulting footage, which Holcombe sometimes posts to Twitter under the hashtag #BearsEyeView, plays like a montage of a bear’s day. A bear paws at a raspberry bush, pulling the sweet fruit off the branches; a bear climbs a tree, the sky above obscured by a canopy of swaying green leaves; a bear snoozes under a bush, one yellowed canine peeking through an upturned lip. They’ve watched bears mate, have run-ins with coyotes, and pilfer apples from orchards. Over hours spent with the footage, Holcombe has developed a few personal favorites.
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“The bear I’m working on right now really enjoys climbing into trees and taking a nap,” Holcombe says. “A lot of the other bears nap on the ground, but she will seek out a really good tree, wander around, and then climb up in it and nap for the rest of the day.” Another clip showed a bear digging up and eating a bee hive, larvae and all.
The team is still analyzing their data, but already, they say, some interesting patterns have begun to emerge. One of the most unexpected is that male and female bears tend to spend their days in different ways. Females tend to exhibit a little more variety in their behavior. They spend their mornings foraging, eating a wide array of plants and insects; some bears in the study fed extensively on wineberries, an invasive species of raspberry, spreading the seeds through their droppings. Males, in contrast, often seek out higher-value prey like fawns; unless they are looking for mates, they spend the rest of the day napping.
To the researchers, this kind of video research is an untapped vein that could lead us into a deeper understanding of wildlife. It’s been relatively sparsely used; the only other full-fledged study Kelly knows of collared kangaroos in Australia to see what they ate. Utilized properly, she says, it has the potential to give us information about bears and other creatures that we otherwise never would have guessed.
“It’s kind of cool that we’re at the cutting edge,” she says. “[We’re] trying to do something new here.”