Infanticide: an ugly side of nature

In this news item, a few anecdotes and highlights of the trip report to Spain to observe brown bears in the Cantabrian mountains during the spring of 2023. In 2022, this resulted in eight different bears, this year nine. An exceptional feature of this news item (hence the chosen title) is the description of an incident between three bears that we were able to observe in person the year before. This before their deaths due to a fight that took place between them a few days later. This mainly because of the male bear with infanticide in mind. Furthermore, the atmosphere and details of the bear behavior during the observations are described.

A somewhat strange first scanning session

Despite the resident pair of golden eagles being present, the first evening will be one without large carnivores. Neither brown bear, wolf, nor a wildcat are discovered during the first scanning session. This despite the information of other bear fanatics on site who did spot a brown bear that morning from the vantage point where we were. So, they are present!

Well, that’s just how it goes. After all, bears do not walk around here in large numbers, as the ungulates present here do. We know where to find red deer, roe deer and Cantabrian chamois. Logical to: top predators are always scarce given their place at the top of the food pyramid. In addition, we are in a mountainous landscape where a mosaic of shrubs and forests offer 1001 possibilities to go unnoticed.

Always a challenge and a sense of reward to spot a target species! Every bear trip is different and something to look forward to!

It is a somewhat strange and bizarre start to the current bear trip since the information provided of a bear trio that we were able to observe here last year: a female bear with her cub that we saw emerging from a rock cavity and a large, patrolling male in a field a little lower in the valley.

Video images on a mobile phone show that a meeting of this male with the female and her young, a few days after our observations, gets completely out of hand and ends abruptly and fatally . The images are downright horrifying. Something you would rather not witness yourself. The male, known by the locals as Pintocho, appears to have crawled all the way to the top of the rock formation where the female, along with her cub, uses a cave that acts as a shelter and refuge. The male had intentions to kill the tiny cub. But the mother does not let this happen just like that; she goes into battle with the much larger male. But that turns out to be a losing battle. The neck bite of the male almost makes the female succumb.

But then something happens that you wouldn’t have thought possible: the two adults, first slide off the rock in the tumult of the life-and-death fight, a little later fall from a lower cliff into the depths. The male makes the deepest fall. The next day he is found dead by the employees of the medio ambiante; government forest rangers who act locally as a bear patrol. The unfortunate male bear is taken away. It can be viewed these days in the local educational center of the Montana Palentina Natural Park, where an entire exhibition has been set up around this incident. It turns out to be a real tourist attraction!

The female, whose fall was shallower into the ravine, manages to get back into her hiding place. She is accompanied by her cub. It is also the medio ambiante who set up a rescue operation near the cave at the very top of the rock in which the unfortunate duo are hiding. They try to supply the female with apples through a long PVC tube. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to work. Camera images, fifteen meters deep into the cave, only show the distraught wandering cub. No trace of the mother. Maneuvering the cable on which the camera is attached shows the sad image of the deceased female. She too succumbed to the fight and the fatal fall. Moreover, her cub didn’t survive after the death of its mother. It really hurts the heart that our bear trio from last year is no longer among the living!

Why do male bears kill cubs?

By killing the young, the female bear stops producing milk and returns to estrus. However, this does not mean that the infanticidal male is the one who will mate with the female afterwards, as other, more dominant males can and will take this privileged place when the situation presents itself.

Another theory is that bears are also sometimes just cannibals. Very aggressive and oversized males are always a potential threat to cubs, young females or females smaller in size. Especially when males, frustrated by not being able to mate, are overflowing with hormones during the spring.

Liquidating peers is also a way to avoid competition. This concerns the supply of food in the habitat that bears share with their peers. Fewer congeners mean more food for those remaining – a survival tactic especially poignant in times of food scarcity.

The incident, which was filmed in its entirety, shows how harsh, unforgiving and emotionless nature can be at times.

A happy reunion

During one of the the next sessions, we score again regarding spotting a Cantabrian brown bear in the field. This for the first time during the evening. We focus on a location where five to eight bears were observed earlier in the spring. Upon arrival, the vantage point turns out to be completely ours. Many bear spotters have tried their luck here earlier in the season. Something we ourselves are not sad about. Finding a bear will be done by us, ditto the observation! Privilege and exclusivity are guaranteed with this one!It doesn’t take long. Soon, a few chamois, looking backwards, sprinting up a slope, betray the presence of a carnivore. It turns out to be an adult bear using the flat surface of a small quad track that winds its way from east to west on the slope. We see him briefly, a little later, still at the very top of a rock formation.

An hour and a half later, we discovered a second bear. Since its sudden appearance on a gigantic rock formation, this adult individual must have awakened in one of the rock cavities that are located there. With its legs stretched wide and its body pressed close to the ground, the animal descends the very steep slope meandering from one clump of vegetation to another. This with the aim of leaving as many scent traces of its passage as possible. Low vegetation is thereby crossed over with the head, neck and genitals; on trees, the bear stands fully erect or sits on its bottom and rubs its fur back and forth, as well as from top to bottom, over the trunk to infuse it with its scent. Something we can lavishly behold for a long time!

A gem to end with

During one of the next sessions, we visit a viewpoint that at the time (2010) was no more than a narrow alley in a picturesque village. In the presence of many people, it was not always easy to enjoy the bears properly at the time. Anno 2023, the steep alley from 13 years ago is these days now a fully-fledged vantage point to spot the resident bears. Some picnic tables and benches, as well as an information board and a covered viewing hut, make spotting bears a lot more comfortable. The bears here are part of the local community! Or how Spaniards are proud of their large carnivores and clearly have a green connection with their immediate environment! Great stuff! We turn out to be the only foreigners among ten locals present; also armed with binoculars and telescopes.

However, the resident bear with her two cubs is at a respectable distance. A very stable hand was really needed if you wanted to get her in your sight. This once again shows the added value of a binocular adapter mounted on the tripod. It provides a stable image in which the bear and her cubs are easily found. Moreover, top binoculars and telescopes really show a difference in terms of image quality. Enlarging the image to 40x zoom with the telescope completes the picture. It is a five-star experience in terms of nature experience!

Two cubs, less than three months old, are having fun around their mother, who is napping in a kind of pit. Every now and then she raises her head when her cubs get a little rough on a rock that acts as a playground for them. Once the evening progresses, the mother wakes up and the three go out. But the movement they make is nil since the cubs keep returning to their play rock. In addition, the mother is very wary. Something that, given last year’s situation, no longer surprises us. The appearance of a local male is something we would rather not see happen now!

Half an hour before darkness falls, we get a great buzz observing the mother bear, seated on her bottom, suckling her two cubs. An image that we will never forget and a very harmonious end to a long bear weekend! The trio then opts for the safety of the pit that we can still see, supplemented with some nesting material that the bear scraped from the nearby vegetation.

More than satisfied we close the evening with, for the first time, an extensive dinner at the restaurant. After all, on the previous days we always ate in the field since evenings were fully spent at viewpoints. Sagging afterwards, was something that was not possible because of the early rise the next day. Being in the right place at the right time really matters here!

The sequel

After all these years it really isn’t that hard to spot spring bears in Spain with all our area knowledge. We are considering planning a 10-day trip in late May – early June focusing on five different bear locations that we now know very well. Something that, with a bit of luck, could yield 20 to 30 bears. Moreover, you will find yourself, this time of year, in a fresh green environment in which many of the plants present are in full bloom. Being surrounded by a rich range of different types of orchids is the rule rather than the exception. Cantabria is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most biodiverse areas! We’ll be back there soon!

Trip report

Both reports of the 2023 trip in May can be found in the REPORTS section: one in Dutch; the other in English. We tried to write a realistic and moody picture of the journey with special attention to the better observations. As usual we try to avoid a dry summary of the known daily pattern of meals alternated with numbers of spotted animals. We wish you a lot of reading pleasure.

The link to the report in English:

The link to the report in Dutch: