The Desert-dwelling Gobi Bear the Rarest Brown Bear

By: Nicole Antonio & Sascha Bos  | 
Yurts on patchy grass with sand dunes and desert mountains in the background
At a glance, the Gobi Desert doesn't scream "bear country," and the truth is that it's a relatively inhospitable landscape for Gobi bears. Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

The Gobi bear, scientifically known as Ursus arctos gobiensis, is a brown bear subspecies found exclusively in Mongolia's Gobi Desert. Also referred to as the Mazaalai in Mongolian, this unique bear is categorized as "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bear Specialist Group the Mongolian Red Book of threatened species.

With its small population size and extreme habitat, the Gobi bear faces numerous survival challenges. In this article, we will delve into the world of Gobi bears, exploring their habitat, lifestyle, diet and the ongoing efforts of the Gobi Bear Project team to conserve this endangered species.

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Habitat and Distribution

Gobi bears have adapted to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth: the Mongolian Gobi Desert. This desert stretches across southern Mongolia and northern China, covering an area of approximately 500,000 square miles (1,295,000 square kilometers).

The Gobi Desert is characterized by its extreme temperatures, arid landscapes and limited water sources. Within this challenging habitat, Gobi bears are restricted to a small region of approximately 9,100 square miles (23,600 square kilometers), largely because they need to stay close to water sources.

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The isolation of the Gobi bear population is a result of human settlements, non-bear grazing activities and the generally inhospitable nature of low-elevation deserts.

This separation from other brown bear populations has led to reproductive isolation, contributing to the low genetic diversity observed in Gobi bears. Genetic monitoring has estimated the current population size to be around 31 bears, with a skewed sex ratio towards males.

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Physical Characteristics of Gobi Bears

Gobi bears are a subspecies of the brown bear, but they exhibit distinct characteristics that enable them to thrive in the hot desert climates of the Gobi Desert. Gobi bears are generally smaller than other subspecies of brown bears.

Adult males weigh approximately 211 to 304 pounds (96 to 138 kilograms), while females weigh about 112 to 171 pounds (51 to 78 kilograms). Their diet primarily consists of berries, roots and other plants; there's no indication that Gobis prey on other large mammals.

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Risks of Low Genetic Diversity

Gobi bears demonstrate some of the lowest genetic diversity of any brown bear subspecies. This limited biodiversity is attributed to the highly skewed sex ratio, as well as the low count of alleles per locus in the species' DNA.

These genetic factors have significant implications for the reproduction and long-term survival of the Gobi bear population, such as susceptibility to disease and genetic disorders.

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Conservation Efforts

Recognizing the critical status of the Gobi bear, the Mongolian government implemented conservation measures to protect this endangered species. Hunting of Gobi bears has been prohibited since 1959, aiming to preserve the declining population.

Additionally, the Gobi Bear Project, in collaboration with various organizations, has been actively involved in conservation and research efforts.

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Gobi Bear Project

The Gobi Bear Project, initiated in 2005, has been at the forefront of conservation efforts for Gobi bears. This project focuses on various activities aimed at promoting the survival of this unique subspecies.

One of the key aspects of the project is the use of GPS satellite radio collars to track and monitor the movement of Gobi bears. By fitting collars on 20 individuals, the project team has gained valuable insights into their behavior and habitat utilization.

Genetic hair analysis has also played a crucial role in understanding the population dynamics of Gobi bears. Combined with GPS tracking data, this genetic analysis has provided researchers with a comprehensive understanding of how the bears navigate their environment and correlation between the bears' behavior and their survival.

Supplemental Feeding Program

The Mongolian government introduced supplemental feeding sites for the Gobi bear population in 1985. These sites aim to provide the bears with the necessary sustenance to survive the harsh winter hibernation periods.

The feeding sites, managed in part by the Gobi Bear Project team, offer a delicate balance between ensuring access to food without creating dependence or increasing mortality rates.

Population Analysis

Understanding the population dynamics is crucial for effective conservation efforts. The Gobi Bear Project has undertaken a DNA-based population analysis program using samples collected from the feeding sites and oases within the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area.

Long-term studies have revealed a population size of approximately 31 bears, with a relatively stable trend over time.

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Threats and Challenges

The Gobi bear faces numerous threats and challenges that contribute to its critically endangered status. Habitat loss and fragmentation due to human activities, such as mining and infrastructure development, pose significant risks to the survival of the species.

Climate change and the increasing frequency of droughts further exacerbate the challenges that Gobi bears face as their habitat becomes even more inhospitable.

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The limited genetic diversity observed in the Gobi bear population also poses a threat to its long-term survival. Low genetic diversity reduces the species' ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions and increases its vulnerability to diseases and other genetic disorders.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

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