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World's oldest known wild bear dies at nearly 40 in Itasca County

Bear No. 56 peers from its den in the Chippewa National Forest near Marcell, Minn. The bear died of old age in Itasca County at the age of 39 1/2, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Bob King/Duluth News Tribune

The world’s oldest-known wild bear has died of old age in northern Minnesota at the age of 39½, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The bear was known to DNR researchers as Bear No. 56. A female American black bear, she was first captured and radio-collared in July 1981 by DNR scientists during the first summer of a long-term research project on bear population ecology.

The bear was 7 years old at the time and was accompanied by three female cubs.

Bear No. 56 became a significant animal in the DNR research project. During a 32-year study period, she and her many offspring provided an almost uninterrupted record of reproduction, survival, movements and aging within a single matriarchal lineage, researchers said. Data from this bear and her offspring have contributed significantly to the scientific literature on black bear biology, DNR officials said.

A News Tribune reporter accompanied DNR researchers in February to visit Bear No. 56 at her den in the Marcell area in Itasca County. The old bear roused slightly from her rest but did not emerge from her den.

Here is an excerpt from the News Tribune’s Feb. 10 story:

“And, there, under an upturned stump with roots dangling from a 15-by-15-inch opening, lay the old girl that biologists call No. 56.

“In the shadowy depths of the den, No. 56 stirred slowly from her winter lethargy. Her pink tongue licked at the air. Her big head rose in slow motion from where it had rested on her black paws. Her sizeable hulk nearly filled the earthen cavity.

“She was unlikely to stir more than that. In hibernation, (DNR bear project leader Dave) Garshelis said, bears remain drowsy, their body temperature down from a normal 99 to about 90 degrees, their heartbeats slowed and intermittent. A hibernating bear does not drink, and may go the full six months without urinating or defecating.”

Sam Cook | Forum News Service

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