For the past seven days, 12 brown bears have been pitted against each other in a competition of tubbiness and fluff. But now the fourth annual Fat Bear Week, a competition run by the rangers at Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, has come to a close. There’s a new queen in the den, and her name is Beadnose.
Beadnose had to earn the popular vote, winning out over a competitive field of fat bears to get to where she is today. After a nail-biting week, though, this Fat Bear Tuesday she surpassed the male bear simply known as 747, a big boy that some inaccurately predicted would take it all. Early on, she overtook 480 Otis, a crowd favorite who’s won the competition twice before. And while the competition is fun for humans to observe, it’s a matter of survival for bears like Beadnose, Otis, and 747. Tuesday’s results prove that Beadnose is not here to mess around. Beadnose is here to survive winter.
“It’s fun, it’s entertaining for us to watch — but they will lose one-third of their body mass during winter hibernation,” Katmai park ranger Andrew LaValle tells Inverse. “They have to gain all of that back during the summer months in order to survive the next winter.”
And even as the bears eat to build up fat that will help them survive winter, the human side of the competition for fattest bear is not without its own drama. Votes for the fattest bear come as “likes” on the bear’s before-and-after photos on the park’s Facebook page, and conversation in the photo’s comment section is rife with debate over which bear is truly larger. As of Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. EST, Beadnose had received 6,300 votes and 747 had received a still-impressive 2,800 votes.
“[747’s] belly is almost dragging … this is a hard choice,” commenter Hunter Currey wrote. “He’s got a big stomach, but Beadnose i fat ALL OVER. I’m tired of well-qualified females not getting the vote.”
When asked if the truly fattest bear sometimes loses the popular vote, LaValle replied coyly: “That’s a contentious topic.” He does admit that “certain bears may get some extra credit for being fan favorites.” As for LaValle, he’s officially impartial as one of the administrators of the contest.
Beadnose — a mother who emancipated two cubs this summer— and her peers are chubby and getting chubbier because they are in a biological state called hyperphagia. During hyperphagia, bears eat nearly non-stop because the chemical switch that would typically tell them that they are full is turned off. Throughout fall they indulge in sockeye salmon and berries without ever feeling like they’ve satisfied their appetite. Beadnose’s dramatic weight gain is made obvious by her winning photograph: The image on the left was taken on June 29 and the image on the right on September 30.
During their hyperphagia phase, the bears become huge, gaining the hundreds of pounds necessary for them to survive hibernation. Alaskan brown bears can add up to four pounds a day, and the largest adult males sometimes enter their den at an astounding 1,200 pounds.
“There are certain bears that you see walk by on a daily basis and you’re just like wow is that real?” says LaValle. “That looks more like a hippopotamus than a bear.”
They need all this chunkiness to survive hibernation, which can last for up to half of the year. When the bears eventually emerge from their dens in April, they will have lost up to one-third of their body mass. Fat Bear Week is designed in part to show people who may never get to set foot in the park the dramatic changes that these bears go through.
“They start coming out around April or so,” ranger Sara Wolman told Inverse. “But when the salmon run starts at the end of June into July, that’s when they really go crazy.”
However, it’s important to note that the magnificent weight seen on Beadnose, 747, and their ten rivals now isn’t the limit of their fatness. According to LaValle, the fattest they’ll be is when they go into their den sometime in November. But just because the Fat Bear competition is over doesn’t mean one has to miss out on the impending plumpness: The park will still have its reliable livecams of the bears hanging out in Brooks Falls.