Disclosure: Some links may be affiliate links. If you buy an item via links on our site, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
I have always been fascinated by bears, but sadly they have a bit of a bad reputation as mindless killers. In fact, while they can be aggressive, they’re super intelligent and social animals that are very unique. In this article, I’ll be telling you everything you need to know about these loveable creatures and if you’ve ever not liked bears, I’m sure this will change your opinion.
In some cultures, the bear has incredible cultural significance. For example, in Native American culture, bears symbolize strength, family, and courage. Sadly, in a lot of cultures, bears are also actively hunted both for their fur and their meat.
In parts of the world, bears are captured and used as performers. This is a cruel practice, although it is slowly being eradicated. And while most people see bears as ferocious, when raised by humans from a young age, they can actually be very loving, well-trained, and sociable.
Bears are a group of mammals that belong to the Ursidae family, and there are currently eight species of bear found on planet earth. Later in this guide, I’ll introduce you to each of them, as different species can have markedly different traits and behaviors.
The bear is a very widespread animal globally and can be found in the Americas, Asia, and Europe, where their omnivorous diet sees them hunting for meat, fish, insects, nuts, and fruits. Thanks to their incredible senses of smell and hearing, bears are easily able to find food and this also helps them to avoid threats. In a lot of cases, bears sit at the top of the food chain, making them apex predators. What’s more, their paws are equipped with large claws, which they will use to swipe when defending themselves as well as for catching prey.
These large claws also make bears excellent climbers, and they’re also able to dig which allows them to access underground insect nests and aids when creating their dens. Inside the den, many species of bear will hibernate through the winter and they also benefit from super thick fur to protect them from the cold.
Owing to activities like hunting and poaching, some species of bears are under threat. Habitat loss is also a common problem for bears like the polar bear and the giant panda whose numbers have dropped alarmingly low.
Bear Diversity: Exploring Different Species
There are eight species of bear known to humans, and they each have very different traits and behaviors. The diet between bear species varies drastically, and they live in a range of habitats and conditions.
1. Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)
Brown bears are found in both North America and Eurasia, and the population of these large omnivorous mammals is thriving. It’s thought that there are well over 100,000 individuals in the wild, meaning that they are listed as being of least concern. That said, some populations are faced with habitat loss and threats related to hunting. In the wild, these bears feed on a varied diet of fruits, nuts, fish, insects, and small mammals.
However, it is important to note that there is not just one type of brown bear; there are, in fact, 14 subspecies but many of them have similar characteristics, including a muscular hump on the shoulder that helps them when digging and moving heavy objects. However, the coloration of brown bears can vary between very light and very dark. But in most subspecies, the fur has a long and shaggy appearance.
Here’s a list of some brown bear subspecies:
- Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)
- Alaskan brown bear (Ursus arctos alascensis)
- Dall Island brown bear (Ursus arctos dalli)
- Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi)
- Kamchatkan brown bear (Ursus arctos beringianus)
- East Siberian brown bear (Ursus arctos collaris)
- Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos)
- Syrian brown bear (Ursus arctos syriacus)
- Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus)
- Ezo brown bear (Ursus arctos lasiotus)
- Sitka brown bear (Ursus arctos sitkensis)
- Tibetan blue bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus)
- Stikine brown bear (Ursus arctos stikeenensis)
The brown bear is largely a solitary species, but they are known to form groups where food sources are abundant; remember the scenes at the salmon run from the Disney movie, Brother Bear? Since salmon return to their natal rivers to spawn, this is a prime feeding opportunity for bears that will gather in large numbers.
However, when winter comes around, brown bears enter a long period of hibernation, where they may remain inactive for as long as seven months! It’s at this time that females give birth to their young and can have up to four cubs at a time.
Many people are fearful of bears, but it’s important to remember that they’re not usually aggressive. In most cases, they’ll move away from humans and will only attack if they feel threatened. What’s more, since brown bears are seen as a keystone species, removing them from the wild could have a significant impact on the environment thanks to their ability to distribute plant seeds and control populations of smaller animals, which would then overgraze and reduce habitat.
2. Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus)
The Asiatic black bear can have either dark brown or black fur, but all individuals have a distinct cream-colored patch on their chest in a crescent shape, which is why they’re sometimes called moon bears. Being medium-sized bears, adults usually grow to between 200 and 225 lbs (91 and 102 kg). This species is found in many Asian countries, including Korea, Japan, China, and many of the southeastern nations.
As is the case with the brown bear, there are several subspecies of Asiatic black bear including:
- Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus laniger)
- Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus thibetanus)
- Formosan black bear (Ursus thibetanus formosanus)
- Japanese black bear (Ursus thibetanus japonicus)
- Ussuri black bear (Ursus thibetanus ussuricus)
- Indochinese black bear (Ursus thibetanus mupinensis)
- Balochistan black bear (Ursus thibetanus gedrosianus)
But while there are many different subspecies of this bear, their numbers are under threat and with a decreasing population, they’re considered vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. One of the main threats to this species is habitat loss, but hunting for both meat and fur is also a very serious problem. In some areas, the bile of the Asiatic black bear is used in traditional medicine.
Because of this, there are farms where captive bears are treated inhumanely and kept in uncomfortably small enclosures. Shockingly, this type of farm is reported to exist in as many as 13 Asian nations. However, there may still be hope since some nations are realizing the damage that’s being done, and scientists may have come up with a synthetic alternative to bear bile.
Just like the brown bear, Asiatic bears hibernate during winter, which is when the females will give birth to up to three cubs. These bears are also known for their fantastic climbing abilities which allow them to escape predators, find food, or simply locate a quiet spot to rest.
3. American Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
In North America, you’re more likely to spot a black bear than any other species since they’re the most common bear on the continent. They’re widespread across both Canada and the US (in as many as 32 states), and there are several subspecies to look out for. Most American black bears have either very dark brown or black fur, and some have a lighter patch of hair on the chest, although this isn’t the case in all individuals. Sometimes, they are confused with the grizzly bear, but black bears do not have a shoulder hump, and they’re generally much smaller, with males growing up to 6.6 feet (2 meters) in length.
Here are some of the subspecies:
- Eastern American black bear (Ursus americanus americanus)
- Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus)
- Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus)
- New Mexico black bear (Ursus americanus amblyceps)
- Cinnamon bear (Ursus americanus cinnamomum)
- Glacier bear (Ursus americanus emmonsii)
- Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodei)
- Olympic black bear (Ursus americanus altifrontalis)
- California black bear (Ursus americanus californiensis)
- Vancouver Island black bear (Ursus americanus vancouveri)
- Alaskan black bear (Ursus americanus pugnax)
- Newfoundland black bear (Ursus americanus hamiltoni)
- West Mexican black bear (Ursus americanus machetes)
- Haida Gwaii black bear (Ursus americanus carlottae)
- Kenai black bear (Ursus americanus perniger)
- Mexican black bear (Ursus americanus eremicus)
Like their cousins, the brown bears, American black bears are omnivores, and their diet is varied and can include small mammals, fish, insects, berries, and nuts. While not common, they may sometimes go for larger mammals like deer. In order to get food, American black bears are specially adapted for climbing and swimming, and this also helps them to escape threats.
While American black bears are known to hibernate, they don’t always do this, and when they do, the duration largely depends on their location, the weather, and other factors. As is the case with a lot of bear species, females will give birth during the winter, sometimes in hibernation, and they can have up to five cubs.
The population of American black bears is said to be increasing, and as such, they’re listed as being of least concern by the IUCN Red List. This is mainly because there are a lot of conservation efforts in place to protect the species but also because, unlike some bears, American black bears are still able to thrive where there is lots of human activity.
For this reason, they’re often seen as a nuisance because they’ll quite boldly go for human food sources. While they’re not generally aggressive, they can become so during these times.
Sadly, though, American black bears are a target for hunters who will pursue them for their fur and meat or simply as trophies. However, it’s important that we raise awareness of the importance of not hunting them since they’re vital players in the ecosystem, dispersing seeds, helping with nutrient cycling, and controlling populations of small mammals that may otherwise feed too heavily and reduce habitat for other creatures.
4. Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
Despite living on the ice, the polar bear is considered to be a marine mammal as it relies heavily on the ocean for its food sources which include seals, walruses, and fish. Because of this, polar bears are specially adapted to swim long distances in the cold Arctic waters and could swim as far as 60 miles (97 km) at a time. As well as catching prey in the water, polar bears are ambush hunters that will wait at the side of a hole in the ice and strike at their prey. When hunting, they can sniff out prey from over a mile (1.6 km) away, thanks to their excellent sense of smell. Plus, they’re so strong and effective at hunting that nothing predates them, so they’re the apex predators within their environment.
Found in the Arctic regions, polar bears are the largest bear species, and males can weigh up to 1,500 lbs (680 kg). When they stand on their hind legs, they can tower as tall as 10 feet (3 meters)! This large size, coupled with their aggressive nature, means that they have come into conflict with humans, with reports of polar bears killing people. In some areas, polar bears are even encroaching on land where they encounter humans.
Despite this, polar bears remain my favorite type of bear because of their uniqueness and power. While most people think they are white, their skin is actually black and is covered in transparent hair that reflects sunlight and therefore appears white. Underneath the skin, like many polar animals, these bears have a layer of blubber that’s designed to protect them from the cold. They also have several other interesting adaptations to help them survive in their cold environment, including a small tail and ears to minimize heat loss as well as wide paws that help to equally distribute their weight on the volatile ice.
When I say that the ice is volatile, this is because much of it is melting as a result of climate change. Because of this, polar bears are at high risk of habitat loss, which has already affected their populations. In fact, they’re now listed as vulnerable, and it isn’t known how many remain in the wild. Polar bears are solitary creatures that usually only come together to breed or share food. When females give birth, they typically have one to three cubs which they raise in a den built from within the snow.
5. Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
Unlike most bear species, giant pandas are herbivorous, and the main part of their diet comes from eating bamboo. However, while they’re often depicted with a bamboo shoot in their paws, they do sometimes feed on other plants. In the wild, where food sources are low, they might even predate small birds or rodents. In order to allow them to grip bamboo shoots, pandas have a special thumb, which is not a trait seen in other bears. In addition to this, their specialized digestive systems allow these animals to extract nutrients from the fibrous shoots.
One of the most identifiable features of the giant panda is its black and white fur with distinctive black markings around the eyes and ears. These bears are found in China where they live a quiet life, being a naturally non-aggressive and solitary species. However, while they’re often seen as a Chinese symbol, there are some questionable practices taking place in the country around breeding programs.
However, it is known that giant pandas have a hard time breeding in the wild and that’s largely due to the very small window of fertility in the females. As a result of this, populations are not strong and when you couple this with habitat loss and poaching, it’s easy to see why the species is listed as vulnerable. There are an estimated 500 to 1000 individuals left in the wild. There are humane captive breeding programs taking place, and these do seem to be having a positive impact on wild populations.
When communicating, giant pandas have a unique bleating call, which is a delight to listen to. But sadly, it may be something we no longer get to enjoy if populations do not improve.
There may be giant panda subspecies to be discovered as scientists suggest that there could be some with genetic differences that are yet to be assessed.
6. Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus)
There are two subspecies of sloth bear; the Indian sloth bear (Melursus ursinus ursinus) and the Sri Lankan sloth bear (Melursus ursinus inornatus). While the former is found in many South Asian nations such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan, the latter is only found on the island nation of Sri Lanka.
In any case, these bears prefer a range of habitats that may include dry areas like scrublands or more humid environments like tropical forests where they feed on a diet of insects and can eat as many as 20,000 bugs in a day! One of their favorite foods is termites, and they have a long snout which they use to vacuum these out of their nests. Those long claws also come in handy when hunting and they also have fully-closable nostrils to keep out the dust when digging.
The sloth bear has a long, shaggy, black coat and an aggressive nature. When coming into contact with humans and other animals, they don’t think twice about defending themselves. However, when they feel threatened, their excellent climbing abilities allow them to scale trees with ease. They also have a special call known as the huck-quaff, which is also thought to be used as a warning to predators. That said, they won’t seek out human contact and will avoid it where possible.
Unfortunately, the sloth bear is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and according to reports, populations are declining. Some of the main threats to this species include habitat loss and hunting.
Agricultural land has fast encroached on sloth bear territory, although there are several conservation efforts in place to try and rectify this problem.
7. Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus)
Sun bears are the smallest species of bear in the world, and when they’re fully grown, they may only be 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall, weighing between 60 and 150 lbs (27 and 68 kg). These bears are native to Southeast Asia where they enjoy a forest habitat.
One of the most interesting things about the sun bear is its unique appearance. While their fur is dark on most of the body, these bears have an orange patch on the chest and muzzle and this is different in terms of size and shape depending on the individual.
On top of this, sun bears have another unique characteristic in that they are primarily a tree dwelling species. In order to thrive in their arboreal environment, sun bears have long claws that are ideal for climbing. These bears are known for their love of honey. Although the main part of their diet consists of insects like bees and termites as well as fruit.
Just like the sloth bear, sun bears have a very aggressive nature and aren’t afraid to defend themselves. However, it is reported that sun bear couples may become monogamous. During breeding season, the females will give birth to a single cub or twins, and despite the suggestion of monogamy, the mother will usually raise her cubs alone.
There are a two subspecies of sun bear, these include:
- Borneo sun bear (Helarctos malayanus euryspilus)
- Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus malayanus)
Sun bears, like many other bear species face a variety of threats, including human activities like poaching and hunting as well as habitat loss. However, there are conservation efforts in place designed to protect them.
8. Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus)
There is only one species of bear native to South America and that’s the spectacled bear. It takes its name from the light colored ring that sits in rings around the eyes, resembling a pair of glasses. Males can weigh up to 440 lbs (200 kg), but the females can be a third of this size.
The spectacled bear is the smallest bear found in the Americas and typically inhabits countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Peru. Owing to its range, it is sometimes called the Andean bear. Paddington Bear, the fictional character, was based on the spectacled bear, drawing inspiration from its endearing and iconic appearance. While other bears may have several subspecies, there is currently only one subspecies of the spectacled bear called the Tremarctos ornatus ornatus.
Spectacled bears are listed as carnivores, but only around 5% of their diet is made up from meat. Primarily, they feed on plants, including fruits, flowers, and bamboo, for which they have long claws, allowing them to climb into the trees and forage. Not only this, but their uniquely shaped jaws better allow them to strip woody foods like bamboo.
Unlike many other bear species, female spectacled bears only have one or two cubs at a time. The benefit of this is that she’s quickly able to raise them alone, teaching them the necessary ways of surviving, such as finding food and defending themselves. Predators include jaguars and mountain lions but also humans due to hunting, which is one of the reasons numbers have declined. As such, the spectacled bear is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with fewer than 10,000 or as little as 2,500 individuals in the wild. Because of this, conservation efforts are in place that also help to tackle the problems associated with habitat loss that these bears face.
Bears in Peril: Efforts to Safeguard Bear Populations
Bears are incredible animals, but they are facing several threats that could cause their numbers to decline. Fortunately, humans are aware of these issues and are implementing strategies to protect them.
Habitat loss is a massive problem for most bear species, and as such, humans have put many conservation efforts into place. These include things like creating protected areas like national parks and sanctuaries where these animals can live without fear. What’s more, many natural habitats are being restored, including reforestation efforts, which create more food sources and shelter for bears and other animals.
For example, in Southeast Asia, efforts are being made to conserve existing forests, and it’s also been made illegal to kill bears in this part of the world to further protect them. In Canada, various authorities have clubbed together in order to protect more than 6.4 million hectares (64 billion square meters) of bear and wolf habitat, which has been dubbed the Great Bear Habitat. In other areas, conservationists are working with communities to find ways of creating better use of the land for bears, with many communal lands being handed over for the good of the wildlife.
Many habitats have been fragmented which can have an impact on bears’ ability to breed and find food. However, wildlife corridors are being opened up to connect fragmented habitats, allowing bears to freely move between them. Moreover, where bears are migrating, many authorities have created protected passages for their safety.
A lack of water also plays a role in habitat loss, so offering protection to natural sources like rivers and wetlands is important in keeping bear populations strong.
Many bears are the target of poachers, and this has caused their numbers to dramatically decrease. However, patrols are now being taken in areas where bear poaching is well known in order to check for signs of activity as well as catching people in the act. These aren’t always physical patrols but can also include the installation of cameras, which are intended to serve as a deterrent.
What’s more, governments are cracking down on poachers, especially since, in some areas, the number of bears has decreased by more than 34%. Suggestions include jail time of up to 10 years for individuals caught poaching as well as fines of up to $15,000. Hunting bears is also illegal in India, and recently a man was arrested and prosecuted for consuming bear penises after being on the run for six years.
As I discussed earlier, there are many bear farms in Asia which are intended to harvest the bile of these bears’ gall bladders using some horrific practices. South Korea has pledged to ban the existence of bear farms by the year 2026. In the meantime, any existing bear farms are being encouraged to improve their conditions. What’s more, it’s been reported that many bear farmers head out into the wild to poach bears in order to increase their captive populations, proving that the very existence of these farms fuels poaching.
All of these efforts would be no good, however, without the public understanding the effects that poaching has on bears which is why many awareness and education programs are being launched.
Conservation Breeding & Reintroduction Programs
One of the most effective ways to increase the number of wild bears is to breed them in captivity before releasing them into the wild. However, this can be difficult, depending on the species. For example, pandas are extremely hard to breed, owing to the short fertility time of the females each breeding season. In China, while there are many breeding programs taking place, the first took eight years before a cub was born.
There are zoos and wildlife parks around the world taking part in bear-breeding programs. In South Korea, efforts are being made to release 50 moon bears back into the wild. Of course, this is just the start of the program, and further efforts will be made. There is real hope for this as the bears are bred in captivity before allowed to acclimatize to their surroundings before being fully released into the wild.
More good news happened at the Smithsonian National Zoo at the end of last year, with two Andean bear cubs being born after eight years without any births.
Bears are not only hunted and poached by humans but they may be killed because they’re seen as a nuisance or a threat. In a lot of areas, bears will enter urban areas in search of food, raiding food stores and trash cans, which causes conflict with humans.
While killing the bears is not the answer, putting measures in place to prevent this behavior can reduce conflict and therefore bear deaths. One such example is the use of electric fencing, which surrounds bear habitats, keeping them in at the same time as keeping humans out. While the fencing does deliver a shock, it’s not enough to harm the bears; merely deter them.
What’s more, many urban authorities are installing bear-resistant containers and garbage management practices. This has happened in Poland, where wild animals have been getting into garbage bins and eating human food. Tourists have also been feeding the wild animals, which has caused problems for the locals. Not only this, but human food isn’t suitable for bears, and repeated consumption could affect their health, so these measures are extremely important. Similar installations have been made in Vermont in recreation areas.
Bears and other wild animals often find themselves in human environments by mistake because of urbanization. However, by carefully designing roads with wildlife crossings, bears are able to move between habitats without coming into contact with humans.
Research & Monitoring
Keeping an eye on bear activity and behavior can tell us a lot about their populations. This is important because it provides us with an opportunity to take measures to protect their habitats and stop their numbers from declining.
However, it isn’t always easy to monitor bears as some have aggressive natures while others can be timid and aren’t often spotted. But in order to tackle these issues, experts are now employing the use of drones, which has been particularly useful when monitoring polar bear births in the Arctic.
Other devices that can be used include GPS trackers and cameras, both of which allow us to track the movement and behavior of bear species in the wild as well as assessing their current needs.
Extinct Bear Species
While there are eight current extant species of bears, there were once many more. Let’s meet some of the bears that didn’t make it.
1. Atlas Bear (Ursus arctos crowtheri)
The atlas bear was a species of brown bear native to North Africa. The species sadly became extinct towards the end of the 19th century after the use of firearms made hunting much more effective.
These were large bears that grew up to 1,000 lbs (454 kg) and measured as long as 9 feet (2.7 meters) in length. But it was a species that was always under threat, having been used for sport as far back as the Roman times.
2. Mexican Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos nelsoni)
The Mexican grizzly bear, as its name suggests, was native to parts of Mexico and some areas of the southern United States. While the last sighting of a Mexican grizzly bear occurred in the 1950s, it is suggested that there still remains plenty of viable habitat where individuals may still be hiding.
It’s thought that there were several poisonings of Mexican grizzly bears that could have led to their extinction. This was because the bears would sometimes prey on cattle, causing farmers to see them as a nuisance.
3. Etruscan Bear (Ursus etruscus)
The Etruscan bear is a prehistoric species of bear that was believed to have lived in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. These bears have been extinct for a long time; anywhere between 5.3 and 100,000 million years!
These were medium-sized bears that weighed up to 705 lbs (320 kg) and could measure up to 6.6 feet (2 meters) in length. Many scientists believe that they are one of the primary ancestors of the modern brown bear.
4. Cave Bear (Ursus spelaeus)
The cave bear is another prehistoric species that’s thought to have lived around 24,000 years ago and was found all over continental Europe as well as in the United Kingdom. Having been carnivores, much of the plant life they fed on would have died out during cold periods, and scientists think that their large sinuses could have caused their extinction in relation to this.
These were cave-dwelling bears, as their names suggest, and it’s said that there were two main types. A large species, the cave bear would have stood 5.9 feet (1.8 meters) on its hind legs.
5. Florida Cave Bear (Tremarctos floridanus)
Another species of cave bear was the Florida cave bear, which is thought to have existed between 11,000 and 250,000 years ago in the southeastern parts of the United States. While not generally found in North America, it’s thought that the closest living relative of the Florida cave bear is the spectacled bear.
And these bears must have been extremely abundant since there are more fossilized cave bears in Florida than there are living black bears! According to these fossils, we can estimate that a fully grown male weighed around 650 lbs (295 kg), although females were markedly smaller.
6. Short-Faced Bear (Arctodus simus)
The short-faced bear, sometimes called the bulldog bear, is thought to have been one of the largest land mammals when it roamed the earth around 11,000 years ago. Fully grown males could have weighed more than 2,000 lbs (907 kg); that’s twice the weight of a polar bear.
Although they only stood around 5.9 feet (1.8 meters) tall on their hind legs, they were extremely heavy set. There are even still markings on cave walls in North America that are thought to have been the work of the short-faced bear!
7. Auvergne Bear (Ursus minimus)
The Auvergne bear is thought to have roamed the earth for three and a half million years during the Pliocene and Pleistocene eras. It was mainly found on continental Europe, but its distribution could have spread as far as the Black Sea in Russia.
It is believed that the Auvergne bear is an ancestor of the modern day Asiatic black bear, and any remains are very hard to tell apart from this modern species. Being a small bear, this species would only have weighed around 100 lbs (45 kg).
8. Pleistocene Small Cave Bear (Ursus rossicus)
Ursus rossicus was a species of cave bear from the Pleistocene era and was found in Siberia and Northern Eurasia. However, any remains of this species were not discovered until the early 1970s and there’s still a lot we don’t know about it.
However, by looking at the remains, we can see that its body was very similar in shape and structure to that of the modern brown bear.