In northern Minn., the world’s oldest bear goes quietly

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

The world’s oldest known wild bear has died without the benefit of ever having a name.

The Department of Natural Resources today announced that Bear No. 56 has passed on at age 39.5. She was found in a secluded spot in the Chippewa National Forest near Marcell in Itasca County and apparently died of natural causes.

According to the DNR press release:

From 1981-1995, Bear No. 56 produced eight litters of cubs and successfully reared a remarkable 21 of the 22 cubs to 1½ years of age. In 1997, at age 23, she uncharacteristically lost two of her three cubs before weaning. In 1999, at age 25, she bore and raised her last cub. In 2001, when she was next expected to give birth, researchers found her healthy in her den and producing milk but without cubs.

Bear No. 56 outlived by 19 years all of the 360 other radio-collared black bears that DNR researchers have followed since 1981. She also outlived any radio-collared bear of any species in the world. Only a very few individual study bears have been reported to reach age 30. The second-oldest was a brown bear that lived to 34.

Researchers suspect Bear No. 56’s longevity probably is best attributed to a combination of factors, including the location of her home range in a forested area with few people or major roads; a more reticent nature than that of many bears, in terms of her avoidance of people; and luck.

The death doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Earlier this year, the Star Tribune reported, the DNR warned hunters that #56 was on her way out and needed to be shown the respect she deserved.

“We’ve never seen a wild bear die of old age,’’ Karen Noyce, Department of Natural Resources research biologist in Grand Rapids, told the paper “It’s just extremely rare. We’re not going to crack any secrets, but it’s so rare to get an opportunity to watch a wild animal age normally.

Related: A year in the life of Bear 56 (DNR)

Checking up on #56 (Duluth News Tribune)