I’m Annie Rauwerda, and I started @depthsofwikipedia on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok to highlight my favorite Wikipedia rabbit holes. I partnered with Bullish Studios to round up bizarre trivia about a new topic each week.
For Today's Edition: Bear Week!
Every September since 2014, Katmai National Park in Alaska has held Fat Bear Week to celebrate its bears' hard work preparing for hibernation. An online competition relies on voters like you to determine the fattest of the fat. Such uninhibited celebration of fatness feels quite thrilling in a culture that can be so squeamish about weight.
This year, there’s a new category: Cubs! I urge you to indulge in the uncomplicated joy of chubby bear cubs! Check out explore.org for voting, images of each bear contestant featuring before and after photos and a personality description, and striking live streams of bears in the park.
In the spirit of Fat Bear Week, here are some Wiki-related deep dives into bears, one of the most intelligent land animals in North America!
Polar Bear Jail
Dangerous bears in Manitoba, Canada, spend time in the polar bear slammer. Before the 1960s, townspeople kept guns to shoot the bears. Now, there’s a 24-hour hotline: 204-675-BEAR. Staff then transport the polar bears to a 28-cell prison, where they await relocation.
Here’s how that happens, according to The Atlantic: “When the time is right and the weather clears, the wardens tranquilize the animals, bundle them in nets, strap them to helicopters, and airlift them to a site 70 kilometers north of Churchill. The bears get ear tag radios so that officials can track their movements, and lip tattoos so they can be identified in future years.”
Wojtek, the Soldier Bear
In the early 1940s, 18-year-old Irena Bokiewicz convinced her great uncle, a general in the Polish army, to adopt a brown bear cub whose mother had died. Wojtek the bear was then enlisted as a soldier to pay for his rations. Rumor says he moved crates of ammunition in the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino, and he did such a good job that he was promoted to corporal!
Wojtek was also known to:
- Drink beer and smoke (and eat) cigarettes!
- Drink coffee in the mornings!
- Sleep with other soldiers if they were cold in the night!
- Salute when greeted!
After the war, there was a popular exhibit dedicated to Wojtek at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, and people would sometimes throw cigarettes into his enclosure. More in Wojtek's Wikipedia article!
Though “koala bear” is a misnomer (they’re marsupials!), giant pandas are indeed bears. And for many years, scientists debated whether they were more related to bears or raccoons.
Thanks to molecular studies, Team Bear won — which means that I can tell you about panda pornography and still fit with the bear theme of this newsletter!
- In 2006, when giant pandas were at dire risk of extinction and consistently unenthusiastic about mating, scientists showed panda sex tapes to captive giant pandas. And it kind of worked (better than Viagra, at least)! By 2016, pandas moved off the endangered species list.
- Panda porn created enough news that Pornhub solicited videos for its new “panda-style” category.
- Another hero in the fight to repopulate the panda population was Pan Pan, a legendary male panda who was very good at sex. As of 2017, his descendants make up over 130 of the 520 pandas living in research centers and zoos. Maggie Koerth wrote a fantastic piece about him for FiveThirtyEight (warning: it’s long).
- Perhaps this is a weird tidbit to include, but my ex-boyfriend from high school loved the story of Pan Pan — so much so that he made a photo of the panda his computer background.
More Bear Trivia!
- Boner bone: Pollution is pushing polar bear penises to their breaking point. Like many mammals, polar bears have a bone called the baculum in their penis to keep an erection going. According to this scientific study, the use of PCBs causes lower polar bear penile density! The good news: the pollutants were widely banned in 2001.
- Pablo EskoBear: According to a 1985 New York Times article, a drug smuggler dropped 76 pounds of cocaine (worth $15 million) out of a plane into the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. A black bear found and ate it, later dying of a massive overdose. The story will come to the big screen in the movie “Cocaine Bear,” directed by Elizabeth Banks and set for release in 2022.
- RIP: The California grizzly bear is on California’s flag even though it’s been extinct since 1924.
- Oops: A Chinese family raised two puppies for two years until they started walking on two legs and getting huge. It turned out the “puppies” were bears.
- Bear bender: A bear in Washington state got into some campers’ coolers and tried one can of Busch and moved on to Rainier, drinking over 30 cans. After the bear passed out for a few hours, wildlife officers relocated it with a humane trap with donuts, honey, and two additional cans of Rainier.
- Munch: During a 2010 heat wave, hungry bears in Siberia dug up and snacked on some human corpses from cemeteries.
- Forbidden love: A female grey wolf and a male brown bear were spotted together every night for 10 days straight, spending the hours between 8 p.m. and 4 p.m. together. If you like this, you might also like the stories in the Wikipedia article “Interspecies friendship.”
- Business bear: Yogi Bear wore a collar not only because he was smarter than the average bear but also because it saved animators tons of time. When the character spoke, animators would only redraw the area above the collar, reducing drawings by a factor of seven.
- Nutrients: Trees near rivers with salmon grow three times faster because bears leave salmon carcasses to decompose.
- Bear bear bear: The scientific name for the Eurasian brown bear is Ursus arctos arctos, which means "bear bear bear" (in Latin and Greek respectively).
- Andree’s Arctic balloon expedition: In 1897, three Swedish explorers attempted to reach the North Pole for the first time. They traveled by hot air balloon but crashed after three days. Three decades later, their bodies and journals were discovered — revealing that they’d survived for weeks by eating polar bears. Check out the Wikipedia page for (much) more information about the tragic trip!
- Lions and tigers and bears — oh my!: In 2001, a bear, lion, and tiger (called BLT) were rescued from a drug dealer’s house in Atlanta. They’d bonded as a trio during their 15 years together even though they were all predator males. Instead of Tiger King 2, can we get a series about this??!
- He who must not be named: There’s a theory that the original word for “bear” has been lost because people in the middle ages thought that the animal’s name would summon it. The superstition led them to use “bruin” (the brown one) as a euphemism, which eventually became “bear.” Relevant xkcd (with linguist Gretchen McCulloch, whose book I quite liked):
Lastly, here's a graphic from the “polar bear” Wikipedia page that makes me wonder if I am all that different from a polar bear myself.
Here's some @depthsofwikipedia posts that people liked this week:
- Desire path: Tiktok and Instagram both loved this. It's my second most-liked post of all time (behind Josh fight).
- List of common misconceptions: The most-shared image from this round-up post is a fact about swallowing gasoline — it turns out consuming small quantities isn't a big deal. Don't drink it though, obviously!!
- Buttered cat paradox: Cats always land on their feet, and buttered toast always lands buttered side down. So what if you put toast on a cat's back?
- Trout Tickling: "The art of rubbing the underbelly of a trout with fingers. If done properly, the trout will go into a trance after a minute or so, and can then easily be retrieved." Follower @max.mayy commented, "I like that it says they can be easily retrieved post-tickle, as though you don't need to physically grab it to do this."
- Terrence Howard: This former Marvel Cinematic Universe actor constructed models out of plastic and wire to develop bizarre logical beliefs called "terryology," which center around the idea that 1 x 1 = 2. Here's the proof he posted on Twitter.
That's all for today! Still want more bear facts? Check out Wikipedia’s List of individual bears. As always, feel free to forward this to a friend and send your thoughts to [email protected]. I really like your emails!