Bears in the Sky: Ursa Major and Ursa Minor

This drawing depicts the constellation Ursa Major. Notice the bear’s long tail. Do black bears have tails like that? (Drawing by Johannes Hevelius)

By Elizabeth Watts, Educator

Most of the time when you go outside at night, you don’t want to encounter any bears. However, there are always bears around if you know where to look — up in the stars! Luckily these bears won’t be bothered by your presence. 

The bears are the constellations known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, or the Greater Bear and the Lesser Bear. The stars that make up these constellations are almost always visible in the northern hemisphere. While the Greeks, Romans, and Native people of the Americas saw bears, other cultures saw a wagon, a plough, a coffin, and many other things. Since this is Bear Fest, we’ll focus on the bear stories. 

These drawings represent the constellations Ursa Major (the Greater Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Lesser Bear). Can you find the Big Dipper within Ursa Major? The two stars at the bottom of the bowl point to Polaris, the North Star. (Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman)

The written history of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor goes back thousands of years. Ptolemy listed Ursa Major and Ursa Minor as one of 48 constellations in one of the earliest surviving books on astronomy. It is mentioned in even earlier works, such as a poem by Aratus in 275 BCE. In this blog post, the author lists myths going back even farther in history.

As with many stories from history, there is more than one version of the myth of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. One version is that Ursa Major represents Callisto who had a child with Zeus, king of the Greek gods. When Zeus’ wife, Hera, found out, she turned Callisto into a bear. Then one day Callisto’s son was out hunting and saw a great bear, not realizing it was his mother. To save them both Zeus threw them into the sky. Callisto became Ursa Major and her son, Arcus, became Ursa Minor. In other stories, Zeus turned Callisto into the bear to hide her from Hera. Other stories use the Roman form of the gods, Jupiter and Juno.

The bears in ancient Greece were Eurasian brown bears that are related to the grizzly bears found in North America. These bears are different from the black bears that live in New Mexico. Currently, there are estimated to be 450 brown bears living in the mountains of Greece. In general, bears are in declining numbers in Europe due to loss of habitat, but several groups in Greece are working to protect their bears. 

In the drawing of Ursa Major based on the Greek myths, many people notice something unusual — the bear’s tail! Bears did not have long tails like this, even thousands of years ago. One story says that when Zeus threw the bear into the sky, he stretched out its tail. Interestingly, some of the Native people in the Americas told stories of a bear in this collection of stars. However, they did not see the handle of the dipper as a giant bear tail. Instead, the stars were seen hunters that were following the bear. As with the Greek and Roman myths, there are many versions of this story amongst Native people. Here is one version of an Iroquois story of the Hunting of the Great Bear.

You can also watch a video version of the Never Ending Bear Hunt from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Many other stories explain these stars, like this legend from the Cheyenne people about the Big Dipper called “The Quillwork Girl and Her Seven Brothers.”

Many of us are familiar with the Big Dipper. This group of stars is visible all year even in places with light pollution and is very recognizable. The dipper is not a constellation itself, but is called an “asterism” which is a collection of stars. While the Big Dipper is part of Ursa Major, it is not all of it. In the picture above you can see the dipper is just part of the larger bear. The Big Dipper is also known by other names around the world, such as the Plough, the Seven Sages, a boat, a salmon net, and others.

This photo shows how close Polaris, the North Star, is to the North Celestial Pole. If you can find this star at night, you can figure out which way is north! (Photo by Giuseppe Donatiello)

In addition to the fact that the Big Dipper is so easy to find, another reason this asterism is so widely known is that it helps people find north. Look at the above illustration of the two bears. The two stars at the end of the “bowl” of the Big Dipper point to Polaris, the North Star. Polaris also happens to be the end of the tail of the Little Dipper, but it is much easier to find the Big Dipper first. 

In the last photograph, you can see all the stars rotating around the North Celestial Pole. Polaris is also shown so you can see how close it is to lining up with the pole. If you can find Polaris at night you can figure out what direction you are going. 

Since the Big Dipper rotates around Polaris, you can use its position to approximate what time it is! Here’s an article on how to make your very own star clock. Try it out if you go camping or just in your own backyard. Just try not to disturb any wildlife that may also be out at night, like a real bear! 

Also remember when you are looking at the stars that it is fun to look for constellations that other people recognize, but it is also fun to look for your own patterns in the stars. Maybe you can write your own story from what you see in the stars and send it to us!

Getting to Hibernation: Best Practices for Living with Bears

A black bear crosses a road near Bandelier National Monument in 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Creel)

By James Robinson
Los Alamos County Councilor

I have been receiving many emails, text messages, and phone calls concerning our increased bear activity, and I thought I would share some best practices to use until winter.

First, some education.

An American black bear this far into the year needs to consume over 10,000 calories a day to build the weight necessary for the winter. Bears are the world’s greatest calorie counters, and easy calories are always the best.

Traditionally, bears would get their calories by eating grasses, berries, acorns, and occasional meat sources. However, when these sources are limited due to drought, bears will often find their way into our roll-carts. These carts are full of better tasting, high calorie food than the bear would find in nature, and we tend to line it up nicely for them on the street — an easy way to make their calorie goal. Like a kid in a cookie jar, once they have positive reinforcement, they will keep coming back for more until the cookie jar is removed or they are punished.

Negative reinforcement of bears can range from yelling and screaming, to electric shocks, rubber bullets, and relocation. Ultimately, the bear might have to be euthanized. All because it kept coming for the cookie in the cookie jar.

This is where we, as residents of this area, come in.

As our area continues to experience extreme drought, we will continue to see more and more bears coming into town looking for food. It is up to each and every one of us to make sure that they cannot find easy food. Only then, can we assure that these bears will not have to face relocation or euthanization.

I have asked the County staff to begin procuring more bear resistant roll-carts. My goal is to get every household a bear resistant roll-cart, however, it will take time to get the carts and deploy them. In the meantime, I am asking all residents of Los Alamos to get creative in keeping bears out of our roll-carts. The easiest solution is to lock the roll-cart in a garage or shed until the morning of your scheduled collection. If you have this ability, PLEASE do this right away.

For those, like myself, who do not have a garage to store our roll-carts, my first recommendation would be to find a way to secure the lid of your roll-cart. This video demonstrates how this can be done using ratchet straps. Another option is to purchase an electric fence (similar to those used for dogs) and build a barrier around your roll-carts. Bears are very pain adverse and often will give up after one shock. Here’s some information from Bear Smart Durango on how to use electric fencing to deter bears.

Other options I have heard is cleaning your roll-cart regularly with ammonia, or even storing dirty diapers in the cart. We are a creative community. I feel we can come up with a million ways to build a better bear resistant roll-cart!

Ultimately, it is up to each and every one of us to protect our bears. I will continue to work on community wide efforts to help our citizens, however, due to the limitations of the Anti-Donation Clause, many of these options are up to the individual household.

As the adage goes, “a fed bear, is a dead bear.” Los Alamos has already seen one bear attack, and a mother bear and cubs relocated. Most likely, these bears will not be the last. By changing our habits, and working a little harder, we can make sure we live in harmony with our bears. It is up to us to take responsibility for the waste we generate.

To learn more about living amongst black bears, be sure to tune in for a talk from Kathleen Ramsay on Tuesday, September 1 at 7 PM. She will discuss the ways that bears access food in our communities, and what we can do to prevent this behavior.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email me at

If you’d like more information on living with bears, I encourage you to visit this website as well for information on preventing problems.

Where’s the Water? Bears in the Sandia Mountains

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A black bear sitting in Paradise Spring in 2008, the first year the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center put out their game cameras.
A game camera located at one of the springs that the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center monitors.

By Fiana Shapiro, Environmental Educator at the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center

Here at the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center, located in the mountains east of Albuquerque, we’ve been tracking bear visits for 12 years! We’ve recorded animal visits at two nearby springs, called Mud and Paradise, by stationing game cameras at both locations all year long. Both springs are located within the Cibola National Forest.

These cameras are motion and heat sensing, so they automatically snap photos of the animals that move in front of them. Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about our resident black bears through this project!

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A bear with blonde fur at Mud Spring in 2009. Many New Mexico black bears have fur colors other than black, though they are all one species.

Paradise Spring dried up when the groundwater that filled it in dropped underground. Looking at these graphs, can you tell when that happened?

In late 2011 and into the spring of 2012, this spring was drying up. This has happened to many springs in the Sandia Mountains, often due to years of less snowpack higher on the mountain. In the spring, any snow up high that melts trickles slowly down into the groundwater and moves down the mountain. 

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Cubs trying to get water from Paradise Spring when it was almost dry.
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A bear at Mud Spring in 2013, after it had become the more popular watering hole because it still had water.

Luckily for now, Mud Spring is still filled in by groundwater, so bears can keep coming back throughout the spring, summer, and fall each year. As you can see in this graph, their favorite month to visit is June, followed by July. I bet you drink more water in the hot summer months, too!

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Licking up the last bit of water, mid-day on the last day of August 2013.

Speaking of heat, this graph shows what the air temperature was during bear visits (the cameras detect that, too). 60-64°F sounds like a nice cool time to take a hike over to a spring, doesn’t it? So even though bears are coming most often in some of the hottest months of the year, we’ve noticed that they seem to time their visits for when it is a bit cooler. 

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Because our winters can be mild without a lot of snow, New Mexico’s bears sometimes venture out of their dens in the winter months. However, it’s rare that they visit our springs in the winter, preferring to stay close to home. 

What time of day would you think bears like to come by the springs?

Turns out, they don’t seem to have much of a preference. Visits happen equally in morning, afternoon, and evening. Their least favorite time period is from midnight to 4 AM. I know I don’t like to wake up thirsty in the middle of the night!

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This bear is one of the exceptions — clearly they are a “night owl.”

Climate change in New Mexico is causing worse and longer droughts, less snow each winter, and hotter temperatures that evaporate water and make animals thirstier, which means that the wildlife here are finding it harder and harder to get the water they need.

At Mud Spring, we witness the water level dropping a little each year, as the bears dig down to get to the wet spots and drink from a pool smaller than themselves. If we can work to slow the impacts of climate change more, we can help the bears, as well as the squirrels, deer, birds, skunks, bobcats, ringtails, coyotes, and mountain lions to survive. 

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A bear checking out one of the Mud Spring cameras last month. We have seen a lot of bear activity this year, perhaps because humans aren’t hiking our trails as frequently.
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A mama bear with her cubs. It’s a good sign that a bear is healthy and that there’s enough food for her to find when she’s given birth to cubs (if not, she won’t have babies that year). Black bears have 1 – 3 cubs at a time.

Here’s a video of all different species of wildlife that visited Mud Spring this spring:

Do you want to see more photos from the Sandia Mountain Natural History Center’s critter cameras? Check out this webpage.

The SMNHC is a joint partnership between Albuquerque Public Schools and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. For more information, visit their website.

Photographing Black Bears in Los Alamos

Learn about Hari Viswanathan’s experiences photographing black bears in Los Alamos using critter cameras.

Hari Viswanathan joined PEEC for Bear Festival to discuss his experiences photographing black bears in backyards using critter cameras in Los Alamos. In the above video, he talks about how he got started with critter cameras, what behaviors he’s captured from visiting bears, how often he sees them, and more.

In this video, Hari shares some of the video highlights he’s captured using critter cameras.

In the second video, Hari shares some of the video highlights of black bears that he’s been able to capture with his critter cameras!

If you’d like to learn more about bears visiting our yards and communities, be sure to tune in for tomorrow’s live-streamed talk from Dr. Kathleen Ramsay. Find out more and register here.

A Very Beary Animal Scat Challenge

PEEC Educator Denise Matthews and her helpers, Hugo and Jasper, joined us for Bear Festival to teach everyone how to play the Very Beary Animal Scat Challenge!

Join PEEC’s Play-based Education Specialist Denise Matthews and her helpers, Hugo and Jasper, to learn about the Very Beary Animal Scat Challenge in this video!

Try this activity out at home! Here are instructions for how to make the playdough and complete the challenge at home. If you try it out, we’d love to see your “scat” photos! Please send them to

Be sure to check out the other events, contests, and more going on for Bear Festival here!

Bear-Safe Camping & Backpacking

PEEC volunteer Jean Dewart shares best practices for bear-safe camping and backpacking in this video, including a tutorial on how to hang a bear bag!

PEEC volunteer and avid backpacker Jean Dewart joined us to share some bear-safe camping and backpacking tips!

Check out this video to learn how to store your food and toiletries properly while adventuring and to learn how to hang a bear bag.

Thanks to Century Bank for sponsoring Bear Fest 2020! Learn more about the live events, contests, and other fun that’s going on here. If you’d like your own bear-resistant canister to take camping or backpacking, be sure to check out our Bear Festival contests!