by Janet Spencer

The word “bear” is an Old English word, derived from “bher” meaning “brown.” Names of cities, such as Berlin, Berg, and Bern, spring from words for bear. So do names such as Bernard, Bertha, Herbert, Bjorn, Ursula, Urs, and Robert. Come along with Tidbits as we learn about bears!


• There are eight species of bear in the family Ursidae: brown bears (which includes the grizzly), North American black bears, Asian black bears (called moon bears), polar bears, sloth bears, spectacled bears    (also known as Andean bears), giant pandas, and sun bears.

• The giant panda is a bear, but the red panda is not; it’s the only member of the Ailuridae family. Koala bears are not bears but are actually marsupials, more closely related to wombats, kangaroos, and possums.

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• Bears are found in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. Bears have never lived in Australia or Antarctica. Although bears do not currently live in Africa, bear fossils have been found there.

• Six of the eight species of bears are endangered. Rarest is the panda, with about 1,800 remaining in the wild, and another 600 or so in captivity. Today, there are around 25,000 polar bears in the wild.

• The world’s most widely distributed bear is the brown bear, found throughout Europe, Asia, Russia, North America, and Japan.

• The North American black bear is the world’s most common bear. It’s found all over North America, from Florida to Alaska and throughout Canada. There are twice as many American black bears than all other species of bears combined, at about 900,000.

• Sloth bears eat mainly insects, especially termites. They have no front teeth, remarkably long tongues, and nostrils that seal shut, making it easy to suck out insects from their nests like a vacuum cleaner. Sloth bears are not the same as sloths.

• The smallest bear is the sun bear of Asia, weighing 110 lbs (50 kg) or less, about the size of a large dog. Sun bears get their name from the white patch on their chest, which legend says represents the rising sun.

• Polar bears are the largest land carnivores on earth, weighing up to 1,300 lbs (600 kg). The biggest polar bear on record weighed 2,200 lbs (1,002 kg).    However, a Kodiak bear was the largest brown bear ever measured, and he weighed in at 2,500 lbs (1,134 kg).    Kodiak bears of Alaska are a subspecies of the brown bear.

• Polar bears and brown bears were once a single species, before ice age glaciers cut off one population from the other, allowing them to diverge along different evolutionary paths.

• Grizzly bears and polar bears are able to mate and have offspring. The offspring are generally named according to who their dad was: pizzly bear if the father was a polar bear, and grolar bear if their father was a grizzly bear.

• Grizzly and polar bears are the most dangerous bears for humans.

• Found only in the Andes Mountains of South America, Andean bears have blackish fur and distinctive beige markings across their face that resemble spectacles, leading to their common name of spectacled bears. Each bear’s markings are as unique as fingerprints. The spectacled bear is the only bear found south of the Equator.

• Because they eat mostly bamboo, which isn’t very nutritious, pandas spend about four hours a day eating. A panda can eat up to 85 lbs (39 kg) of bamboo each day.   

• You cannot tell if a panda is male or female until it is four years old.

• Bears have two layers of fur: a short layer of fur keeps the bear warm, and a long layer sheds water, keeping the bear dry.

• The sun bear has the shortest fur, so it can stay cool in the hot forests of Asia.

• The fur of the polar bear isn’t actually white; it’s colorless, so it refracts light like snow and appears white. Each individual hair is hollow, transporting the heat of the sun to the skin, which is black in order to retain heat. Polar bears in captivity will turn green when algae grows inside the hollow tubes of each individual hair. It only happens to bears in zoos, never in the wild.

• Bears can see in color. Their vision and hearing is good. But a bear’s sense of smell is around 100 times greater than a human’s and even better than a dog’s. Polar bears can track down an odor from 20 miles (32 km) away. They can smell a dead seal under 3 feet (1 m) of solid ice.

• Black bears climb trees expertly and can easily pull down a human (or another bear) that is higher in the tree, since the bear below has a built-in advantage over the creature above. Grizzlies can climb trees too, but are clumsy about it.

• A bear’s tooth grows new rings every year, just like a tree stump: wide rings for good years and narrow rings for lean years. Each ring is separated by a dark line laid down during the bear’s winter hibernation. Researchers can tell the age of a bear by examining a cross-section of a tooth under a microscope and counting the rings.

• Bears mate in the spring, but the fertilized eggs will not implant until fall. If she’s gained a lot of weight, she may have up to three cubs; if she’s gained a moderate amount of weight, she may have only one cub; if she hasn’t gained enough weight to support both a winter of fasting and a pregnancy, she won’t have any cubs.

• Females mate with several bears over a short period of time, and siblings born at the same time can have different fathers.

• Bears gain up to 200 lbs (91 kg) between spring and fall. They are able to consume up to 15% of their body weight in a single day. Often, bears weigh twice as much in the fall when they’re ready to go into hibernation than they did in the spring right after they came out of hibernation. This is especially true for pregnant females.

• During hibernation, the bear absorbs and recycles its urine into a protein that helps preserve its muscle mass.

• A bear’s normal heartbeat is 40 beats per minute. During hibernation, it drops to 8 beats per minute.

• Grizzly cubs will nurse for two or three years before being weaned. Bear milk is about 30% fat. Compare that to cow’s milk, which is 3 to 4% fat. Cubs will “purr” in a deep, growling way when nursing.

• Bears don’t really growl as portrayed in the movies; they do grunt and huff, but generally in the movies their growling is dubbed from a lion.