Introduction to Bears

Bear, a large, heavily built mammal with shaggy fur and a short tail. Formerly, bears were widely found in the northern forests of Europe, Asia, and North America. Due to intensive clearing of land for farms, they now live only in remote areas, in forests and on mountains. Bears are hunted for their pelts and meat. Unprovoked attacks on humans are rare, but all bears are dangerous when wounded or when their cubs are threatened.

BearsBears live in remote forest and mountain regions.

Because of their playfulness, bears are popular with visitors at zoos. There are many stories about bears—especially children's stories, such as the familiar "Three Bears." Small children often have toy bears, called teddy bears (named after Theodore Roosevelt, who was a noted bear hunter). American Indians regarded bears as supernatural, and some primitive peoples, such as the Ainu of Japan, for example, worshiped bears.

Where in the World Do Bears Live?

Most of the world’s bears live north of the equator.

North America is home to grizzlies and other big brown bears. But the most common North American bears are American black bears.

There are big brown bears in Europe and Asia, too. Asiatic black bears live in Asia, as you might expect. Asia is also home to sloth bears and sun bears.

Polar bears live on the ice fields of the Arctic. This is the region around the North Pole.

The only kind of bear that lives in South America is the spectacled bear. No wild bears live in Africa, Australia, or Antarctica.

Facts in brief about bears
Names: Male, boar or he-bear; female, sow or she-bear; young, cub; group, pack or sloth.
Gestation period: 7 to 9 months, depending on the species.
Number of newborn: 1 to 4, usually 2.
Length of life: 15 to 30 years.
Where found: Arctic, Asia, Europe, North and South America.
Scientific classification: Bears belong to the class Mammalia, and the order Carnivora. They make up the bear family, Ursidae.

Body and Habits

The largest bears, the Kodiaks found in Alaska, may be 10 to 12 feet (3 to 3.7 m) long and weigh as much as 1,700 pounds (770 kg). Some small Asiatic bears weigh only about 100 pounds (45 kg) and are about the size of large dogs.

The bear has a massive head, short, erect ears and short, powerful limbs. Its teeth are used for both grinding and tearing. Bears have poor eyesight and hearing but a keen sense of smell. Each foot has five long, sharp, curved claws used for climbing, digging, and holding prey. The bear moves with a lumbering, flat-footed gait, but can run fast when necessary. Bears can run up to 35 miles (56 km) per hour for short distances. They frequently stand and walk on their hind legs, using their forepaws to reach high objects. Bears are skillful tree climbers and good swimmers.

Bears feed on fish, small mammals, fruit, roots, seeds, insects, carrion, and honey. When a bear finds a nest of wild bees, it tears the nest apart and devours the honey. The animal's thick fur protects it from bee stings; the only unprotected spot is the nose.

Bears usually live from 15 to 25 years in the wild and up to 45 years in captivity. Most species are dormant during the winter, sleeping in caves, dens dug in the earth, or other protected places. Cubs are born in the spring; one pair is a normal litter. Cubs are very small at birth, weighing from 8 to 16 ounces (230 to 450 grams). They stay with the mother for a year.

How Do Bears Size Up?

Although bears have similar shapes, they come in very different sizes. The largest bear of all is the Kodiak, an Alaskan brown bear. Next comes the polar bear. In fact, some polar bears have longer bodies than Kodiaks do—although they don’t weigh quite so much. Other big brown bears, such as the grizzly, rank third in terms of size.

Some kinds of bears are fairly close in size. Spectacled bears, American black bears, sloth bears, and Asiatic black bears are all about the same length. Spectacled bears weigh more than the other three species of bears, however. Sloth bears weigh less than the other three. The smallest of all the bears are the sun bears.Within each group of bears, some members are bigger than others. Males in a group are usually bigger than females.

Which Bears Are the Smallest?

The smallest bears are sun bears. A sun bear is only about 3 feet (0.9 meter) long and weighs 60 to 100 pounds (27 to 45 kilograms). That’s the size of a large dog.

Sun bears are different from other bears in many ways. Their fur is black and short, not shaggy like that of most bears. Sun bears have solid, sleek bodies. Their noses may be gray or orange. The sun bear also has a white or yellow marking on its chest. Long ago, people believed the marking looked like a rising sun—thus the name sun bear.

Sun bears mostly search for food at night. They rest during the day. To protect themselves from predators, sun bears climb trees. They build nestlike beds in the trees.

Kinds of Bears

Several species of bears are found in Europe, Asia, and North America. The only species native to South America is the spectacled bear. Bears are now extinct in Africa; they were formerly found in the Atlas Mountains in the north. Australia has no bears; the koala "bear" is a marsupial, or pouched animal, related to the opossum but resembling a teddy bear. The panda "bear," or giant panda, of China is a large mammal with black and white markings. Some zoologists consider it a member of the bear family; others place it in its own family.

The American Black Bear

is the most common species in North America. It weighs about 300 pounds (135 kg) on the average, although some males reach 900 pounds (410 kg). These bears were once found throughout the continent, but now live only in mountainous or heavily wooded areas in the South, the Appalachians, the Adirondacks, the Great Lakes region, the Rocky Mountains, and Canada. Black bears are not necessarily black. Some are white; others, called cinnamon bears, are reddish brown. Yellowstone National Park is famous for black bears that beg food from tourists.

Female black bears mate every other summer, usually during June. After breeding, the male wanders off, leaving the female to care for the cubs that will be born in winter. The cubs are blind for four weeks; they are helpless and furless, usually weighing less than one pound (450 g). For about 40 days they do nothing but eat, sleep, and lie curled up with the mother in the den. They then leave the den with the mother and soon learn to climb trees and hunt for food. By fall they weigh about 40 pounds (18 kg). They spend their first full winter in the den with the mother. Males mature in about two years; females, usually in three.

Are American Black Bears Always Black?

Believe it or not, American black bears are not always black. In fact, they come in many different colors. Some have black coats, brown noses, and white patches on their chests. Others are rusty brown. They are known as cinnamon black bears.

Then there are Kermode’s (KUR mohdz) bears. These American black bears are often creamy-white, but sometimes they are pure white. They even have white claws.The rarest American black bear is the glacier bear. It has a mix of gray and black hairs. This mix makes the bear look blue.

American black bears are smaller and lighter than grizzlies. An American black bear is about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and weighs 200 to 300 pounds (91 to 140 kilograms). These bears are great tree-climbers. In fact, climbing trees is one way they avoid danger.

Brown Bears

Brown bears are found in numerous parts of the Northern Hemisphere. There are several subspecies, found in various areas of North America and Eurasia. Brown bears range in color from light brown to almost black and weigh from 500 to 1700 pounds (225 to 770 kg). They generally feed on plants, but they are good fishers and feast on the salmon that come up the northern rivers to spawn. Some brown bears can be tamed and taught to dance and do tricks.

The grizzly bear is found in the Rockies from Alaska to Colorado. It has a brownish-yellow coat with grizzled (silver-tipped) outer hairs. Grizzly bears have long, sharp claws. When cornered or wounded they are extremely dangerous; unprovoked attacks on humans have also occurred. The grizzly bear is one of several types of brown bears in danger of becoming extinct because of loss of habitat and indiscriminate hunting.

What’s So Grizzly About Grizzly Bears?

Grizzly bears are grizzled, which means “streaked with gray.” A grizzly’s underfur—the fur closest to its skin—is shaggy and mostly shades of brown. But the grizzly also has outer hairs that are white or silver-tipped. This gives the bears a “grizzly” look.

Grizzlies are big brown bears, but don’t let the word brown fool you. Although grizzlies are usually dark brown, they may be cream to almost black in color.

Most adult grizzlies can grow to 8 feet (2.4 meters) long. If one stood on its hind legs in your living room, it might hit its head on the ceiling! A male grizzly may weigh up to 500 pounds (230 kilograms)—the weight of two very large men. Female grizzlies usually weigh 350 to 400 pounds (160 to 180 kilograms). Even though they are smaller than males, female grizzlies are just as fierce—especially when protecting their young.

What’s Under All That Fur?

Very strong bones and powerful muscles are under that mass of fur. A grizzly’s skeleton is much like that of other bears.

Bears have large heads and skulls. They have powerful jaws. They have broad shoulders. A grizzly also has a hump of muscle on its shoulders. So do other big brown bears. One way to tell a big brown bear from other kinds of bears is to look for this hump.

Like other bears, a grizzly has four short legs. Just two of them can support the bear’s entire weight when it stands.

A grizzly has broad, flat paws. There are five toes on each paw. The toes have long, sharp claws that do not pull back, or retract. While most other animals walk on their tiptoes, bears walk on the soles of their feet—just as people do.

What Is a Grizzly’s Sharpest Sense?

The bear’s eyes and ears are small for such a big animal. But the bear’s snout and nose are quite large. Grizzlies depend on their sense of smell to find food. Smell is a bear’s sharpest sense.

A grizzly bear can smell carrion (KAIR ee uhn), or the flesh of a dead animal, from very far away. How far away?Some scientists say that bears can smell carrion from 18 miles (29 kilometers) away.

Grizzlies are out and about during the day and at night. They seem to be most active at dusk or at dawn, however. And, in places where there are people, these bears tend to be nocturnal, or active at night.

What’s for Dinner?

Grizzly bears do eat meat. They eat land animals, such as elk and moose, as well as fish. But grizzlies also feed on plants. These animals also eat berries, grasses, leaves, and roots.

It takes a lot of food to fuel a grizzly bear’s body. For this reason, the bears spend most of their time foraging, or searching for food.

In summer and early fall, a grizzly may eat 80 to 90 pounds (36 to 41 kilograms) of food a day. You would have to have about 300 hamburgers a day to keep up with the bear. Later in the fall, the bear stuffs itself even more. It may gain several pounds of fat a day. The extra fat helps the bear survive the long winter, when it may eat nothing for months.

How Do Grizzlies Survive the Winter?

Many animals hibernate (HY buhr nayt) during the winter. During hibernation, animals go into a deep sleep. Grizzlies do go into a winter sleep—but some scientists say it is not true hibernation. During winter sleep, a grizzly can rouse itself right away if it needs to. This is especially important for female bears that may be caring for cubs.

Some grizzlies find caves or other natural shelters for their winter sleep. Others dig dens. They start digging in the fall, before the ground freezes. Often they dig into steep slopes. A den entrance is usually very narrow, but then it widens into a larger sleeping room.

Grizzly bears usually move into their winter homes between October and December. At that time of year, the plants that bears usually eat have disappeared.

When Is a Grizzly Bear Bare?

A grizzly looks bare—or hairless—when it is first born. But that changes quickly. Within10 days, grizzly cubs already have some fur. The mother grizzly usually gives birth to two cubs, but she may have one to four. The cubs’ eyes are closed at first. They stay closed for about a month. The mother bear cuddles her cubs to keep them warm and safe. Grizzly cubs are quite tiny at birth. They usually weigh 12 to 24 ounces (340 to 680 grams). That’s about the size of a small gray squirrel. But the cubs grow quickly as they feed on their mother’s milk. This milk is very rich in fat—many times richer than a human mother’s milk.

Most grizzlies leave their winter dens between March and May. Mothers with new cubs, however, usually stay in their dens longer than bears without cubs. Cubs are frisky and playful when they come out of the den.

How Do Grizzly Cubs Learn?

Grizzly cubs need to learn certain skills in order to survive on their own. Until then, they depend on their mother. The mother bear feeds and protects her young. If a mother grizzly dies, her cubs are likely to die also.

Cubs learn how to forage from their mother. She also teaches them how to fish. Cubs may continue to use the mother’s fishing method even after they grow up.

The cubs also learn through play. They practice chasing and stalking each other. They chew, swat, and jaw wrestle. These activities build muscles.

Grizzly cubs usually stay with their mother for the first 11/2 to 31/2 years of their lives. Then the family drifts apart. The young adults may den where their mother denned for another year or two. But then they go off on their own.

When Do Grizzlies Get Together?

Grizzlies are loners. They live alone. They hunt alone. They feed alone. But once a year, they do have a kind of get-together. That time comes in the summer, when the streams are filled with salmon. Salmon and other fish are an important part of a grizzly’s diet.

Grizzlies use different methods to catch fish. Some grizzlies stand still in the water. They watch the fish closely. When a fish jumps out of the water, the grizzly snatches it with its jaws. Other grizzlies swat the fish out of the water and up onto the shore.

Some grizzlies dive or “snorkel” under the water in order to find fish. Sometimes a bear launches itself onto the salmon in a bellyflop.

How Do Grizzlies Communicate?

Grizzlies don’t communicate much. Or, if they do, we don’t know a lot about how they do it. But scientists think that these bears do signal each other.

One way that a grizzly signals another bear is by showing off its size. A small bear will usually run from a bigger bear. Two bears that are the same size may circle each other. An angry grizzly will signal by lowering its head and flattening its ears. The bear may even growl or snort.

Some grizzlies stretch up tall and use their claws to scratch the bark of trees. This leaves behind the grizzly’s scent. Its scent lets other bears know that the grizzly is around. This may keep grizzlies from running into each other and probably prevents fights.

The Kodiak bear, found on Kodiak Island off the coast of Alaska, is the largest living carnivore. Kermode's bear inhabits the northwest coast of British Columbia. It is almost completely white.

In England, where they are now extinct, brown bears were often victims of a cruel sport called bearbaiting. A bear chained to a stake in a public place would be forced to fight a pack of dogs. Bearbaiting was outlawed in 1853.

Which Brown Bears Are Bigger Than Grizzlies?

Like grizzlies, Kodiaks are big brown bears. But Kodiaks are even bigger than grizzlies. A Kodiak can stand 9 to 10 feet (2.7 to 3.0 meters) tall. In the fall, a Kodiak can weigh around 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms).

Like their grizzly cousins, Kodiaks love salmon. And there are many salmon where the bears live—on and around Kodiak Island. Kodiak Island, which is off the coast of Alaska, is a salmon spawning ground. A spawning ground is a place where fish lay eggs and breed. It’s also a great place for bears to find their favorite foods.

Kodiaks are excellent fishers. A mother can catch 15 salmon in an hour to feed herself and her cubs. Kodiaks also feed on beached whales.

Polar Bears

The Polar bear is found only near arctic waters. It hunts mainly seals and also eats carcasses of walruses and whales. Polar bears are yellowish-white. They lose practically no body heat because their fur provides excellent insulation. They have bristles on their feet that prevent slipping on ice. Polar bears weigh as much as 1,600 pounds (725 kg).

Polar bearsPolar bears live in coastal regions around the North Pole.

The female digs a den in the ice where her cubs are born in winter. The male keeps active all year. Polar bear cubs stay with the mother until they are about 17 months old.

Do Polar Bears Live at the North Pole?

Polar bears don’t live at the North Pole. But they do live in the Arctic region around the North Pole. Polar bears do not live anywhere near the South Pole. And despite what you might think, polar bears are never found in the same habitat as penguins.

Fully grown male polar bears are around 8 to 11 feet (2.4 to 3.4 meters) long. Some weigh more than 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms). Females are smaller than males.

Polar bears differ from other bears in their coloring. Polar bears are white, creamy, or yellowish-white. This coloring helps these bears blend in with the snowy-white of their habitat. It hides, or camouflages (KAM uh fluh zhuhz), them while they hunt.

Polar bears eat mostly meat. They prey on sea animals, such as fish, seals, walrus, and dead whales. Polar bears also eat berries and grasses—when they can find them.

How Do Polar Bears Get Around?

Polar bears get around easily in and out of water. That’s important because polar bears live where there is a lot of sea ice. The sea ice breaks apart during the summer. The broken off pieces are called ice floes.

Polar bears travel on these floes and swim between them, islands, and the mainland. Polar bears are the best swimmers of all bears. They can swim at speeds of 3 to 6 miles (5 to 10 kilometers) an hour. A polar bear’s large forepaws act like paddles to move the animal through water. Webbing between the toes also helps the bear swim. Its long neck keeps the bear’s head above water.

On land, the polar bear’s broad paws spread weight and act like snowshoes. This helps the bear run fast. A polar bear can run up to 35 miles (56.3 kilometers) an hour—fast enough to catch reindeer.

How Do Polar Bears Keep Warm?

Polar bears have thick layers of fat beneath their skin. This fat helps keep them warm. The bears also have warm fur coats.A polar bear’s fur has an undercoat and an overcoat. The undercoat is made up of fine, white hairs. These provide warmth. The overcoat is made up of long guard hairs that shed water easily. The guard hairs are hollow. This helps trap heat from the sun, providing more warmth. When they get wet, the guard hairs mat together. This helps keep the bear’s skin dry. And a polar bear’s skin is black, which helps keep in heat. Polar bears have fur on their paws. This keeps their feet warm. It also prevents them from slipping on the ice.

How Do Polar Bears Hunt?

Like other bears, polar bears rely on their sense of smell to find prey. On land, they follow their prey on foot. Then they ambush, or attack by surprise.

A polar bear’s favorite prey is the ringed seal. A bear might spot a seal on an ice floe. The polar bear swims forward slowly toward the floe. Only its head is above water. Then the bear jumps up onto the ice and pounces on the seal.

Other times, a polar bear sits next to a seal’s breathing hole in the ice. It waits for a seal to come up for air. When it does, the bear grabs the seal with powerful forepaws and claws. It drags the seal up onto the ice and then eats it. A polar bear may share its kill with other bears. It would rather do this than fight to keep the meal to itself.

Other Bears

The Asiatic black bear ranges throughout much of southern and eastern Asia. It is smaller than the American black bear and lives mainly on fruit and nuts. The sun bear of the Malay Peninsula, sometimes called the Malay bear, is the smallest of all bears. It eats mostly fruit and honey. The sloth bear, or honey bear, of India and Sri Lanka has long, shaggy fur. It uses its long snout and sticky tongue to feed on ants. The spectacled bear of South America is found in the Andes Mountains. It is so called because of yellowish rings around the eyes.

What Is a Moon Bear?

The Asiatic black bear is sometimes called a moon bear because of the marking on its chest. The marking looks like a crescent moon. This bear also has fur of a lighter color on its lower lip and chin.

Asiatic black bears are about the same size as American black bears. But the Asiatic black bears have shiny black fur. They also have thick manes around their faces. A mane may grow to be 6 inches (15 centimeters) long.

Asiatic black bears hunt large and small mammals, including farm animals. They also eat ants and other insects, fruits, nuts, and berries.

How Are American and Asiatic Black Bears Alike?

Both American and Asiatic black bears climb very well. Their claws are strong and short—only about 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) long. The claws are also sharply curved. This helps the bears climb trees with ease.Trees are important to both kinds of black bears. Mothers often send their cubs up trees to protect them. Sometimes Asiatic black bears make day beds in trees. They rest in the trees during the day and come down to feed at night.Both American and some Asiatic black bears go into a winter sleep when the weather gets cold. They do this because food is hard to find then. Other Asiatic black bears that live in warm climates do not sleep through the winter. They never run out of food.

Which Bear Got a Name Change?

The sloth bear looks a lot like the slow-moving, tree-dwelling animal called a sloth. In fact, it looks so much like the sloth that scientists in the late 1700’s called it a “bearlike sloth.” After further study, the scientists realized their mistake and named it “sloth bear.”

Like all bears, a sloth bear has a heavy body and rounded ears. Its tail is short, but it is longer than that of many bears. A sloth bear has long black fur and a light-colored patch on its chest.

Sloth bears are more social than other bears. They communicate with facial expressions and a variety of sounds. Sloth bears roar, howl, squeal, yelp, huff, rattle, and gurgle. Mothers often carry cubs on their backs (just as sloths do) until the babies are quite large.

Are Sloth Bears Lazy?

Sloth bears move with a low, shuffling walk. This makes them look lazy. But, when they are alarmed, they can gallop faster than a person can run.

Sloth bears are not at all lazy when it comes to finding food. They work hard to find it. Their big feet and long, curved claws make them good diggers. Sloth bears have no incisors, or front teeth, and the roofs of their mouths are hollowed out. This creates a vacuum effect that helps the sloth bear suck up its favorite food—termites.

Sloth bears dig into hard, tall termite pillars. A sloth bear inserts its snout, blows away the dust, and sucks the insects into its mouth. The sucking noise is so loud that it can be heard 200 yards (183 meters) away.

Do Spectacled Bears Wear Spectacles?

No, spectacled bears do not wear spectacles, or eyeglasses. But these bears do have white or tan markings around their eyes. These markings make the bears look as if they are wearing glasses.

A spectacled bear’s markings are as special as a person’s fingerprints. No two bears have the same markings.The spectacled bear has the same shaggy coat and heavy body that most bears have. But it has white markings on its neck and chest. Like other bears, the spectacled bear has a short tail and rounded ears.

Where Do Spectacled Bears Find Food?

Like most bears, the spectacled bear likes honey. But it also likes its veggies. It feeds mostly on such things as corn, palm leaves, cactus, and sugar cane, as well as fruits and nuts. This bear has very strong jaws, so it can chew things that other animals may not want to bother with.

Spectacled bears find much of their food in trees. They use their sharp claws to climb trees. Often the bears move from tree to tree as fruits ripen. They may spend three or four days eating the fruit of one tree before moving on to the next.

Spectacled bears raid farmers’ crops and attack their beehives. Farmers don’t like these bears. But spectacled bears are important to the forests in which they live. They scatter the seeds of trees and other plants.

Are Bears in Danger?

Bears will survive only if they have habitats in which to live. Grizzlies, for example, used to roam over large parts of North America. Now they live mostly in western Canada and Alaska. Sloth bears, sun bears, and spectacled bears are also losing their forest homes.

But there is good news for some bears—polar bears. So many of these bears had been hunted that people got worried. In 1973, five countries where polar bears live signed an agreement. As a result, polar bears are now protected by law.

There is hope for other bears, too. Conservationists are setting aside land so that these wild creatures have places to live. Many zoos now have bear-breeding programs for endangered animals. Zoos all over the world are beginning to work together to help preserve these magnificent animals.

Bears make up the family Ursidae of the mammalian order Carnivora. The American black bear is Ursus americanus; the brown bear, U. arctos; the grizzly bear, U. a. horribilis; the Kodiak bear, U. a. middendorffi; Kermode's bear, U. a. kermodei; the polar bear, Ursus maritimus; the Asiatic black bear, Selenarctos thibetanus; the sun bear, Helarctos malayanus; the sloth bear, Melursus ursinus; the spectacled bear, Tremarctos ornatus. Some biologists place all bears, except for the spectacled bear, in the genus Ursus.