Whenever a black bear is killed in North Carolina, whether by a car or a hunter, Colleen Olfenbuttel wants a small part of the animal: the two tiny teeth just behind the upper canines.
It turns out that counting growth rings in those teeth is the best way to determine a bear’s age – information that helps scientists such as Olfenbuttel at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission assess the health of the state’s growing bear population and decide how to manage it.
For more than 35 years, the state’s Black Bear Cooperator Program has collected thousands of the bear teeth, the majority from hunters. The teeth have no known function and can even be removed from live – but hopefully tranquilized – bears.
Many bear hunters are happy to send in their teeth. Olfenbuttel’s team gets teeth from 40 to 50 percent of the black bears killed each year.
By participating in the program, hunters help out the scientists and get information about the ages of their bears. But those aren’t the only incentives.
“They’ll actually send you a hat,” said Jim Noles, 58, a Greensboro bear hunter and the president of the N.C. Bear Hunters Association.
The blaze orange hat features a new black bear logo each year, and it’s quite popular with hunters. Some have been known to wear it year-round.
“An unexpected part of my job is sometimes I’m a fashion designer,” said Olfenbuttel, 39.
Analyzing the teeth
Olfenbuttel sends the teeth gathered from North Carolina bears to Gary Matson, 72, a scientist in Montana.
Matson’s lab processes 400 teeth per day – about 90,000 per year – sent in from around the world.
He first softens the teeth with acid and then embeds them in wax so that he can make fine slices using a microtome, a sophisticated version of a deli meat slicer. The thin slices are observed under a microscope, and the growth rings are counted.
“Nobody understands why the annual rings are formed,” Matson said. But a dark layer corresponds to each winter of the bear’s life.
The distribution of ages of the bears represents the health of the overall population, Matson said.
Olfenbuttel uses this age information to monitor and manage black bear populations in North Carolina.
In July, she received the results from Matson’s lab of the tooth age analysis of 1,442 North Carolina bears harvested in 2012. In the coming weeks, she’ll be using a computer model to analyze the data and come up with an updated bear population estimate.
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