Florida’s black bear protects ecosystem


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An inquisitive Florida black bear has triggered a remote camera set up by biologists. The bear is in the sand pine scrub of the Ocala National Forest, which supports the highest density population of black bears in North America.

Viera Voice Photo

In Florida, the only bear is the Florida black bear. It is a subspecies of the American black bear. Characteristic are the black coat, tan muzzle, short and usually concealed tail, and sometimes a white blaze on the chest.

This is the largest native land mammal in the state. The male (boar) weighs 250 to 450 pounds; the female (sow) is smaller. In 2015, a record male was killed roaming neighborhoods in Seminole County. It weighed 740 pounds, possibly from scavenging garbage.

Longevity is typically less than 20 years. For survival, this animal possesses acute hearing, a keen sense of smell (reaches miles away, better than the bloodhound) and color vision. Non-retractable, stout, curved claws assist in climbing trees to retrieve food, escape danger or rest. Flatfooted, it can walk, stand, and sit upright, but usually engages all four legs.

An omnivore, its diet is 80 percent plant material: berries, acorns and tender shoots. Insects and a few animals are consumed. Beehives are raided for protein from bee larvae and a little honey. 

To Native Americans, the bear is symbolic of rebirth — re-emergence after hibernation. In southern states, bears undergo a shorter den period and sleep less deeply.

 In Florida, the black bear does not truly hibernate but experiences winter denning from late December to late March. Non-pregnant females and males may den for only a few weeks — males may not den at all. A pregnant female establishes a den for giving birth, such as in a dense ground thicket, under a fallen log or high in a tree. She goes without food. 

The initial litter occurs at the age of 3 or 4 years, customarily repeated every other year. From one to five cubs are delivered. When nursing or eating treats, cubs purr. Like a human, the mother might sit upright and cuddle a cub. Essential discipline is achieved by a swat of her paw. They remain with her about 18 months (the male leaves after breeding). Cub survival is 25 percent due to hazards such as den cave-ins, starvation and predators such as male bears, bobcats and coyotes. Male bears also might prey on females. 

Large, diverse habitats are vital, and males require more space. Regrettably, territories are becoming fragmented and land development and traffic are unsettling. Fortunately, Florida conservation endeavors have increased population estimates to more than 4,000 bears. 

Actually, the black bear is important to Florida’s ecosystems. It is identified as an umbrella species, sharing its many habitats with other animals and plants which are protected as well under the umbrella of bear conservation.

Shy and commonly solitary, this bear is rarely viewed but an encounter demands caution. When a bear stands on its hind legs, it might be curious. However, when startled or protecting food or cubs, it might attack in this upright position. Back up slowly and avoid direct eye contact. Do not play dead, run or climb a tree — the bear can climb 100 feet in 30 seconds. It can sprint 35 miles per hour. In addition, it can swim.

At one time, bears were regularly confronted with guns for sport or defense. But, an incident in 1902 endeared them to the public.

 When President Teddy Roosevelt, a standout hunter, was unsuccessful in a bear quest, an old black bear was clubbed and tied to a tree for him to shoot. He declined. A political cartoonist publicized this sportsmanship. Then, an entrepreneurial couple marketed “Teddy’s bear.” In the 1904 election, Roosevelt adopted this toy for the Republican symbol. Moreover, the Smithsonian exhibited the teddy bear — a “descendant” of a noble creature.