A camera-trap image of wildlife is inherently a bit thrilling: after all, it's taken by the critter itself and depicts a moment remote (when it happens) from human observation. That's true whether the animal is a rare species or an "everyday" (but still awesome, mind you) one, and it's true even if the image simply shows a walk-by down a game trail, as is so often the case.

But sometimes, thanks to a well-placed bit of camera gear, an unknowingly cooperative animal and a good sprinkling of serendipity, we get to witness intriguing behaviour that would otherwise have gone down unnoticed in some anonymous wild corner.

Here's a case in point. This past summer, the Candid Critters camera-trapping project – a joint venture of several institutions and agencies that enlists authorised citizen-scientists to gather wildlife images across North Carolina – turned up a dynamic sequence of photos. Taken just after midnight on August 30 in Hyde County in the state's far east, the snapshots show a pair of black bears in a high-powered tussle: all grappling paws and flashing teeth. You can almost hear the husky growls, muffled swats and thumping duff.

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Image: Candid Critters/eMammal
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Image: Candid Critters/eMammal
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Image: Candid Critters/eMammal
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Image: Candid Critters/eMammal

All together now...

It's not at all uncommon for male black bears (boars) to fight during the breeding season, which can extend from late May through early August in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's black bear and furbearer biologist, Colleen Olfenbuttel. Bears ranging about in a quest for receptive females (sows) may clash with rivals they come across, and old males sometimes carry the scars and tattered ears of many seasons of breeding-related pugilism.

Olfenbuttel also noted via email that adult bears sometimes brawl outside the breeding season when contesting a particularly prized food source.

Such genuine fights can be violent and protracted, with sumo-style bracing, shuddering slaps of big, clawed paws, and wicked tugging bites to ears, jowls and neck. (Thick fur and a loose, fatty hide offer good defence against an opponent's jaws.) Consider this bear battle filmed in the New Jersey suburbs:

That being said, Olfenbuttel reckons the wrestling match photographed this past summer by the Candid Critters project was on the lighter side of the spectrum.

"These pictures were taken after the breeding season," she told us. "These are either unrelated subadults or siblings that are play-fighting, though even with play-fighting, a bear can get injured, as this 'play' is practice for when they get older."

Play-fighting is one of the main social interactions younger black bears engage in. One 1970s study that observed both captive and free-ranging bears noted that play-fights sometimes intensified into more serious affairs when one of the combatants flattened its ears: an aggressive signal contrasting with the erect ears of a more playful animal. Such a move "frequently leads to a quick termination of the social play sequence". (As with people, in other words, it's wise to pay attention to body language – and to call the game off when things are getting a little too "real".)

Candid Critters derives from a partnership between North Carolina State University, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, the State Library of North Carolina, NC Cardinal, the Public Libraries of North Carolina and the Smithsonian.

Dr Stephanie Schuttler of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, who helped spotlight the photos of the battling black bears on social media, assists with the Candid Critters programme, including in the many North Carolina schools that participate. She noted the bear fight wasn't the only out-of-the-ordinary phenomenon lately captured by Candid Critters lenses. In late October, a camera trap in Currituck County photographed head-on an arresting white-tailed deer buck with unusually vertical antlers and dark legs:

Image: Candid Critters/eMammal

Dr Schuttler said a forthcoming miniseries called You Won’t Believe will share some of the weirder and wackier wildlife behaviour the Candid Critters camera traps have documented, so definitely keep an eye on the project's website for that...



Top header image: Pixabay