When it comes to bears, the bigger the better, but only in Alaska are they pitted against each other, March Madness-style, to determine which is the fattest in the land. 

Adult bear with two cubs standing on hind legs in Katmai National Park and Preserve
At the beginning of the season, Katmai's brown bears don't look super-chunky, but by the time fall rolls around, they've managed to put on quite a bit of weight. Image © Gleb Tarro/Shutterstock

The pun-loving team at Katmai National Park & Preserve has selected a dozen brown bears to compete in this year’s Fat Bear Week – a hotly anticipated annual event, complete with a bracket, that launched half a decade ago. Thousands of voters have weighed in via Facebook to pick their favorites, from tubby titans and corpulent caniforms to lardaceous leviathans and big-bellied bruins - and the ultimate winner is a bear named Holly. 


The contestants didn’t start out on the heavy side. When this year’s champion is crowned on Tuesday, it will be the culmination of a season’s worth of devoted eating. “The brown bears of Katmai are eating machines,” the park’s site says. “A Katmai bear must eat a full year’s worth of food in six months to ensure its survival….  On days when many salmon are migrating in the river, a large and dominant male bear will sometimes catch and eat more than 30 fish per day.”

That kind of intake leads to serious weight gain, and as Katmai Conservancy media ranger Naomi Boak told Kodiak public radio station KMXT, “some end up over a thousand pounds and many yearlings can literally double in size.” One contestant, for example, “looks like the Michelin Man,” she said, while another is “equally diligent in [the] work of getting fat.”

A coastal brown bear stands in a creek in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska.
This year, the park is planning to release data to back up its fat-bear findings. Image © Chase Dekker/Shutterstock

This year, as in years past, a public vote determined the winner, but the park is trying something new for 2019, implementing 3D scanning to get a handle on the actual numbers – accurate within about 50 pounds, KMXT reports. “A scanner has to pass by the bear several times, if not hundreds of times, and paint the bear with points of light,” National Parks Service geographic information specialist Joel Cusick told the station. From there, bear biologists use those measurements to estimate each beast’s weight – which doesn’t provide a completely precise number, but nonetheless, it’s a solution that serves its purpose. “The ideal situation [would be to] get this giant scale put out there have the bear stand on the scale and scan them,” Cusick said. “That opportunity did not arise.”

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