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The brown bears of Alaska's Katmai National Park don't know it, but they are Internet celebrities, with physiques that are judged even more closely than those of Hollywood stars in the tabloids.
Every year since 2014, 12 of the park's approximately 2,200 bears are chosen to take part in "Fat Bear Week," a single-elimination competition hosted by Explore.org in which voters choose "the bear you believe best exemplifies fatness." There's a good reason for all this - brown bears gain hundreds of pounds during the summer and fall in order to survive off their fat stores during the winter months of hibernation. The bears of Katmai accomplish this by gobbling salmon from the Brooks River. People anywhere in the world can watch the remarkable transformations via webcams located throughout the park.
With 68,105 votes, the 2022 winner is bear 747, nicknamed "Bear Force One," who weighs around 1,400 pounds (635 kg) and previously won the poll in 2020. This year, the veteran bear (he's over 20 years old) faced stiff competition from a newcomer, a 6-year-old female known as bear 901, who received 56,876 votes. Although the competition is very open-ended, voters are encouraged to consider the bear's personality, overall size change, and any challenges it may have overcome.
Mike Fitz, a former ranger in Katmai National Park and the creator of Fat Bear Week, thinks that 747 definitely deserves the title. "We don’t know exactly how big he is, but he is a giant among bears. It may be a long time before we see another bear as big as him,” Fitz said. And it's no wonder 747 has gotten so big. During the summer, an adult male bear usually weighs between 700 and 900 lbs. They'll bulk up to 1,200 lbs by fall, although 747 is significantly bigger than this. Fitz has seen "Bear Force One" eat 15 sockeye salmon in just a few hours – that's around 67,000 calories.
Big, beautiful bears:
- The runner-up, 901, appeared to "triple in size" throughout the summer. She may also be pregnant, as bears typically mate in late spring or early summer. For a healthy pregnancy and birth in the winter, female bears have to gain as much weight as possible.
- Although the bears don't earn any reward for taking part in the competition, Fat Bear Week has helped to raise awareness of what Katmai's bears have to do to survive and the importance of their unique habitat.
- The competition is just for fun, of course, but someone got carried away this year. Thousands of fraudulent ballots had to be thrown out in the semi-finals when a bear named Holly received a suspiciously large number of votes all at once. There is now a Captcha test to prevent future shenanigans.