Science Friday ventured into the interior of Alaska for a look at Denali National Park this week. A guide who works for the Alaska Railroad told us that Denali includes over 6 million acres of land, and is larger than the state of New Hampshire. From Fairbanks, it took about 12 hours by bus and train to get into the center of the park.
Denali is home to many different species of wildlife–caribou, moose, Dall sheep, wolves. But the park’s signature animal seems to be the grizzly bear. We even spotted a few lumbering around the tundra while we were there.
Despite their reputation as blood-thirsty man-eaters (I’m thinking of the documentary Grizzly Man), I was pretty surprised to learn that grizzly bears in some inland places, like Denali, are primarily vegetarians. According to John McPhee’s book Coming into the Country (1977), eighty percent of a grizzly bear’s diet comes from vegetables and roots—particularly milkvetch (Astragalus L.) and Eskimo potatoes (Hedysarum alpinum). A recent study published in the Journal of Mammology provides more insight into what grizzlies like to eat: After analyzing over 650 feces samples, scientists concluded that grizzly bears living in the foothills of Alberta, Canada dined on as many as forty different food items—from moose to dandelions.
Image courtesy of University of Alberta