AboutZoos, Since 2008


How a dic­ta­tor influ­enced unusual bear migra­tion – by air!

pub­lished 23 March 2014 | mod­i­fied 23 March 2014

A genetic study of brown bears in Bul­gar­ian moun­tain regions pro­vided evi­dence for the exis­tence of indi­vid­u­als of Carpathian ori­gin. How did they get there? Nat­ural dis­per­sal is unlikely. Rather, the bears were brought in by air trans­port. Along with coop­er­a­tion part­ners of Bul­gar­ian and Roman­ian NGOs and the Frank­furt Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety Sci­en­tists of the Senck­en­berg Con­ser­va­tion Genet­ics Sec­tion in Frank­furt, Ger­many have con­firmed the leg­end that the for­mer leader of the Roman­ian Com­mu­nist Party, Nico­lae Ceaus­escu once had the bears flown into Bul­garia. Their study has been pub­lished in the jour­nal Con­ser­va­tion Genet­ics on Jan­u­ary this year.

Kormisosh enclosure brown bearThe brown bear (Ursus arc­tos) is con­sid­ered an endan­gered species across Europe. While the species is largely extinct in the west­ern part of the con­ti­nent, larger pop­u­la­tions have per­sisted in the east­ern part, includ­ing Rus­sia, the Carpathi­ans and the Balkan Penin­sula. “Unfor­tu­nately, we lack con­sid­er­able knowl­edge about these few remain­ing viable bear pop­u­la­tions, includ­ing basic data such as pop­u­la­tion size and con­nec­tiv­ity”, says Dr. Carsten Nowak, wildlife geneti­cist at Senck­en­berg. In order to change this unsat­is­fy­ing sit­u­a­tion, lead­ing bear experts from the Balkani Research Soci­ety sam­pled more than 200 scat, hair and tis­sue sam­ples of the species across Bul­gar­ian bear habitats.

Indi­vid­ual DNA pro­files gen­er­ated at the DNA lab­o­ra­to­ries of Senck­en­berg and the LOEWE Bio­di­ver­sity and Cli­mate Research Cen­tre in Frank­furt (BiK-​F) finally pro­vided hard data on the pop­u­la­tion sta­tus in the coun­try. Dur­ing the analy­sis, how­ever, PhD stu­dent Chris­tiane Frosch revealed an unusual pat­tern: sev­eral indi­vid­ual pro­files col­lected in three regions in the main moun­tain regions of the coun­try, the Stara Plan­ina Moun­tains and the Rhodopes, dif­fered con­sid­er­ably from all the other bear pro­files. Where did these bears come from and how did they get there?

We can­not exclude the pos­si­bil­ity of nat­ural migra­tion, but geo­graphic loca­tions of the revealed sam­ples and sev­eral other pat­terns make this sce­nario unlikely
Dr. Carsten Nowak, lead­ing author, wildlife geneti­cist at Senckenberg »

The sci­en­tists finally found the place of ori­gin of these ‘sci­en­tific prob­lem bears’: Sam­ples from the Carpathian moun­tains in Roma­nia pro­vided from bear conser­va­tion­ists of the local Mil­vus Group per­fectly matched the unusual Bul­gar­ian DNA pro­files. These regions, how­ever, lie sev­eral hun­dred kilo­me­ters apart from each other and the gen­er­ally high genetic dif­fer­ence between the pop­u­la­tions does not sug­gest high rates of exchange. Although bears are good long-​distance dis­persers and could the­o­ret­i­cally make it from Roma­nia to Bul­garia by them­selves, the sci­en­tists were sceptic.

Bear Hunt­ing — a Dictator’s Hobby?
Inten­sive inves­ti­ga­tion and regional study finally brought a more rea­son­able expla­na­tion: dur­ing the era of social­ism some East­ern Euro­pean heads of gov­ern­ment were pas­sion­ate bear hunters. It is reported that the Roman­ian dic­ta­tor, Nico­lae Ceaus­escu (19181989), shot more than 1000 bears in his life­time. The con­stant suc­cess of his bear hunt­ing activ­i­ties was guar­an­teed by numer­ous assis­tant hunters and game war­dens, and by activ­i­ties that tar­geted the boost­ing of the Roman­ian bear pop­u­la­tion, includ­ing rais­ing bears in captivity.

Some of these bears were used for improv­ing rela­tion­ships with allied rulers. In Roma­nia and Bul­garia peo­ple report that the large Carpathian bears were brought to Bul­gar­ian enclo­sures by mil­i­tary aero­planes and released in order to spice up the less impres­sive local bear pop­u­la­tion. Indeed, at least one of the places where translo­cated bears where kept, the Kormisosh enclo­sure in the Rhodopes, does still exist (see photo), as local inves­ti­ga­tions revealed. Indeed, sev­eral of the ‘alien’ bear geno­types were found in the vicin­ity of this enclosure.

{jb_comment}More than two decades after the break­down of social­ism in East­ern Europe researchers from Ger­many, Bul­garia and Roma­nia con­firm a curi­ous leg­end: aer­ial dis­per­sal is not restricted to plants, insects, spi­ders, or birds. Occa­sion­ally, this might also involve bears, the heav­i­est land preda­tors on earth.{/jb_comment}

It should be noted that, despite inten­sive inves­ti­ga­tion, the researchers found no writ­ten doc­u­ments about the case. Their study pub­lished in the jour­nal Con­ser­va­tion Genet­ics is the first writ­ten doc­u­ment to cer­tify the aer­ial migra­tion of the brown bears.

(Source: Senck­en­berg press release, 25.02.2014)

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