Bears (scientific name Ursidae) are the largest land animals that eat meat. Mammals of the carniforma order, they live in Eurasia and the Americas. Despite their size and killing power, most bears are omnivores who forage more than they hunt. There are nine species of bear.
Bears evolved over 10 million years ago. Larger, older species like the North American short-faced bear and the European cave bear died out in the Ice Age. Their closest relatives are raccoons and dogs.
Bears have shaggy coats, powerful jaws and sharp claws. Unable to run for long periods, they seldom chase their prey. Instead, bears rely on foraging or killing helpless animals like seal pups or salmon. They have no natural predators and do not fear humans. What they lack in eyesight and hearing, bears make up for in scent. They do not distinguish between night and day and sleep at odd hours. In wintertime, most bears hibernate, occasionally venturing from their dens when snowfall lapses. The polar bear is the only species who stay outside all year long.
Bears mate once every two years. Males court females in the mating season but leave when the cubs are born. Bears stay with their mothers until one year old.
The American black bear is the most widespread species. They are adaptable scavengers and tree climbers who remain widespread today. Regional varieties include the cinnamon bear and the so-called Spirit, or Kermode bear (pictured) of British Columbia, of whom one in every ten have white fur.
Grizzly bears are the American variety of the brown bear. Unlike their smaller cousins, they are too big to climb most trees and owe their size to a salmon-rich diet. Grizzlies can kill bulls with a single blow of their paws. The Kodiak bear, a subspecies found in Alaska, can reach up to 600 kilograms. It is the largest bear.
The spectacled bear is the only bear in South America. Reclusive by nature, they inhabit the Andes Mountains and owe their name to brown rings by their eyes.
The Eurasian brown bear once inhabited Europe, Asia and Morocco but now lives only in isolated forests and mountains. Humans hunted brown bears and taught them to dance at circuses. Though they are highly tamable and eager to please, bears hide their expressions, meaning angry outbursts take their captors by surprise. Wojtek, a Syrian Brown Bear, served in the Polish Army in WW2 and reached the rank of corporal.
Asiatic black bears or ‘moon bears’, so-called because of the mark on their chest, inhabit the Himalayas and the mountains of East Asia. They are far smaller than the American black bear and make expert tree climbers.
Sun Bears are the smallest species of bear. They live in the rainforests of Southeast Asia and subsist mainly from honey and insects.
Sloth bears live in India. Though small and slow, they have sharp claws and can be highly aggressive, particularly towards humans. In the English-speaking world, the most famous Sloth Bear is Baloo from the Jungle Book.
Giant pandas are a small and highly specialized population native to a remote part of China. Unlike other bears, they are entirely herbivorous and eat only bamboo. Biologists considered them bears until the 1950s when they determined they part of the raccoon family. Recent scholarship has reclassified them as bears.
Polar bears are the only entirely carnivorous bears. Living on the Arctic Circle, they are the most accomplished swimmers in the bear family and hunt mainly seals and walrus pups. They are the largest carnivorous mammals. Due to lack of historical exposure, polar bears do not fear humans and are the only bears who will actively hunt them. Other bears attack humans only out of fear or desperation.
Due to their power and unique appearance, bears feature heavily in human folklore. The indigenous peoples of northern Eurasia, from the Ainu of Japan to the Sami of Scandinavia viewed them as sacred, as did many Native American and First Nation peoples. The ancient Greeks believed the constellations Ursa Major and Minor were nymphs transformed into bears. As it exists in both Eurasia and North America, the associations of bears with the ‘cosmic hunt’ is likely over 13,000 years old.
Sources: New Illustrated Animal Kingdom Volume 4, World Wildlife Fund