Hungry Bears Prefer Minivans

Black bears at Yosemite National Park break into minivans more than any other type of vehicle to find munchies, according to a new study published in the October 2009 Journal of Mammalogy. If this sounds like one of the elaborate faux studies cooked up by the Journal of Irreproducible Results, rest assured that actual, trained mammalogists are behind this one–albeit mammalogists who have a sense of humor about their Jellystone-esque research. The press release announcing the study is titled “Yosemite black bears select minivan as ‘Car of the Year’ ” and begins:

For a seven-year period, the top choice of vehicle by black bears in Yosemite National Park has been the minivan. The bears seem to base this decision on “fuel efficiency”–that is, which vehicle offers the best opportunity of finding a meal. As a result, black bears have shown a strong preference for breaking into minivans over other types of vehicles.

Between 2001 and 2007, bears broke into vehicles at the following rates: minivans, 26 percent; sport-utility vehicles, 22.5 percent; small cars, 17.1 percent; sedans, 13.7 percent; trucks, 11.9 percent; vans, 4.2 percent; sports cars, 1.7 percent; coupes, 1.7 percent; and station wagons, 1.4 percent.

Why is the minivan the vehicle of choice? Not simply because there are more minivans–many other types of vehicles were more often left overnight in the park, or “available” in the researchers’ parlance. The scientists from the U.S. Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Research Center offer four possible reasons:

Minivans are more likely to emit food odors, based on the fact that minivans are designed for families with children–who are more likely to spill food and drink in a vehicle.

Passengers of minivans are more prone to leave large amounts of food in a vehicle parked overnight.

Minivans may be structurally easier to break into than other types of vehicles. Bears most often gained access to minivans by popping open a rear side window.

A few individual bears could be responsible for all the break-ins, and they are displaying a learned behavior for choosing minivans.

In short, to campground bears who’ve learned bad behavior, vehicles are simply hard shells encasing many types of treats, whether it’s raw bacon and Bud Lite or goldfish crackers, dog food, and Juicy Juice. And minivans offer the best promise of treats and the easiest wrapper to open. The researchers noted that they “commonly saw car doors bent open, windows on all sides of the vehicle broken, and seats ripped out, all of which appeared effortless for bears.”

Amid the ursine humor in all this, let’s not forget that for bears, developing a taste for human food is often one of the worst things that can happen to them–“a fed bear is a dead bear,” as the saying goes. The researchers’ ultimate hope is to help resolve “bear-human conflicts” as people all around the world expand their range and more frequently come into contact with large carnivores.

See the instructional bear video that rangers show to overnight Yosemite visitors:

Source: Journal of Mammalogy

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