She’s the oldest known wild bear in the world and she lives in Minnesota. Her name? Number 56.
It’s not the most creative of names. Then again, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources didn’t realize in 1981 that they were naming a rather extraordinary bear.
Number 56 is a black bear the state has been tracking, via a video collar, since she was 7 years old. In January, she will be 40 years old. Minnesota DNR’s bear project team is fond of her, and for the last several years has made it a point to ask hunters not to shoot her. Thankfully, so far Minnesota bear hunters have been happy to oblige.
“No known bears of any species have lived longer in the wild, based on age estimates from teeth taken from harvested bears,” Dave Garshelis, the DNR’s bear project leader, told the Duluth News Tribune.
In case you’re wondering, DNR bases this statistic on information garnered from more than 60,000 bear specimens from within Minnesota and one million bears worldwide. Said Garshelis, “It’s just incredible that we happened to collar a bear that outlived all those bears.”
Indeed it is. Few wild bears live past age 20. The vast majority of bears killed by hunters in Minnesota are younger than 4 years old. Somehow, for 39 years, Number 56 has avoided hunters, cars, gun-toting property owners and a host of other scenarios that routinely kill bears. No one is sure why she does this, but it may simply be that she has a more cautious nature than other bears.
“She has stayed away from houses and hunters’ baits, at least until recently,” Garshelis said. “In the past five years, we’ve made a concerted effort to ask people not to shoot her, even if she does come to a bait.” The researchers know of at least one hunter who had a chance to shoot Number 56 and chose not to when he recognized who she was.
“We were really pleased with that,” said Karen Noyce, a wildlife research biologist for DNR.
DNR has uploaded to YouTube some brief footage of Number 56 in her den:
Researchers determined Number 56′s age by counting the rings in a tooth they removed when she entered the tracking program. The tooth told them she was born in January 1974. Yes, the technique is that exact. Over the years she has produced 11 litters and 28 or 29 cubs.
Number 56 was one of approximately 550 bears providing information for a DNR study on black bear reproduction, density and mortality. Her advanced years mean she’s no longer an active member of that study, but the state still tracks her faithfully to see how long she will live. The next-oldest bears in the study made it to age 23. One of them was Number 56′s granddaughter. Good genes, it seems.
Based on the most recent check-up visit to Number 56, she’s healthy but showing her age. Her paws are gray now, her teeth worn. Researchers hope this doesn’t mean she will begin seeking easier food sources in populated areas, which would put her at much greater risk.
Only 14 of the bears tracked by the state have ever died of natural causes. Those who know Number 56 best hope that she will be one of those lucky ones.
“We hope she dies naturally, which would make a nice ending to the story,” Garshelis said.
Until that day, the bear abides.
Photo Credit: YouTube