The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

A nursing bear and her cubs share an intimate Great Smokies moment

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A window on ursine motherhood in Cades Cove

As I was descending a wooded hillside in the heart of Cades Cove on a June afternoon, a motionless black bulk caught my eye off to my left.

I turned my attention there, regarded the scene for a few moments, and realized the sprawling blur was a large sleeping bear. A few moments more of inspection revealed three cubs snoozing in the branches overhead.

I decided to hunker down and watch the scene for a while, and my patience paid off. After several minutes of occasional scratching and yawning, the cubs began to stir. One by one, they descended the tree and began to poke, prod and pace around their reclining mother. A thought popped in my head – would they nurse? Would I be so lucky? I was. I got an intimate look at a mother bear letting her guard down and nourishing her three restless offspring. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

Black bear mothers invest a lot in the care of their cubs. Nursing begins in the winter den, where the mother’s metabolism is already taxed by winter fasting, and tends to continue until the cubs’ first autumn. A lactating mother black bear may lose up to 40 percent of her body weight over the winter as she nurses her newborn cubs. Black bear milk is exceptionally high in fat, around 22 percent by weight. Compare this to human and cow milk at around a modest 4 percent. The rapid growth and restless energy of a healthy black bear cub is fueled by one of the most calorically-rich milks among North American mammals.

This video was shot with a long lens from a long distance. Remember, for the safety of visitors and of wildlife, black bears should not be approached within 50 yards in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors should also change direction or move away if their presence causes a bear to change its behavior.

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