Great Bear Foundation
is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in Missoula, Montana, dedicated to the conservation of the eight species of bears and their habitat around the world.
- The Eight Bear Species of the World
- Asiatic Black Bear
- Black Bear
- Brown Bear
- Panda Bear
- Polar Bear
- Sloth Bear
- Spectacled Bear
- Sun Bear
Learn about bears in the wild with the Great Bear Foundation! Our Polar Bear Ecology Field Course takes people like you to Hudson Bay to observe and learn about polar bears in their natural habitat! Want to help save the world’s bears and their habitats? Become a member of the Great Bear Foundation to help support our bear conservation work.
The Eight Bear Species of the World
Click a tab above or an image below to read more about the habitat, diet, physical characteristics, behavior, interactions with people and more for each of the eight bear species.
Asiatic Black Bear (selenarctos thibetanus)
The Asiatic black bear’s scientific name means “moon bear of Tibet” because of the large, white crescent-shaped mark appearing on its chest. These medium sized bears are highly adaptable forest animals that spend most of their time in trees, avoiding predators and humans.
Habitat: Asiatic black bears live in forests, primarily in hilly or mountainous areas from the base of coastal foothills to approximately 13,000 feet. During the summer, they are often found at higher elevations, but will seek lower elevations for the winter.
Distribution: Asiatic Black bears can be found in Iran, Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, east through the Himalayas, south to Bangladesh and Laos, and north through the Tibetan Plateau. Populations may also be found on Taiwan and on the Japanese Islands of Honshu and Shikoku, but those populations are referred to as the Japanese black bear.
Physical Characteristics: Asiatic black bears have jet-black fur with a brown/tan muzzle and a whitish chin. Long, thick hair around the neck and shoulders create a mane-like appearance. The bears found in higher altitudes of the northern regions have a thicker coat. They range between 55-65 inches (140-165 cm) long, and medium size bears weigh 200-225 pounds (90-101 kg). Large males can weigh over 400 pounds (180 kg), although this is rare. Ears are large and set far apart on their large, round heads. They have short, strong claws for climbing trees, opening termite mounds and peeling bark to eat.
Diet: Asiatic black bears are omnivores that eat termites, beetle larvae, honey, fruits, berries, and carrion, and occasionally prey on livestock. They peel bark from trees to eat the exposed sapwood, often resulting in the death of valuable timber trees, and conflict with humans.
Behavior: These forest-dwellers are nocturnal, often sleeping all day in a cave or hollow tree, and emerging at dusk to look for food. They generally sit in the high fork of a tree, called a “bear’s nest”, to access important foods. The nests look much like birds’ nests and can be found over 60 feet (18 m) high in cherry, beech, oak, or dogwood trees.
Hibernation: Some Asiatic black bears hibernate, while others remain active all year, depending on habitat and how cold it gets. In colder northern regions, most den from November to March in hollow logs. Bears in southern parts of their range may sleep for short periods of time or descend to lower elevations to find food.
Reproduction: Mating typically occurs in the spring or autumn, depending on the population. Like North American black bears, Asiatic black bears delay implantation of the embryo until conditions are right for giving birth. They usually produce two cubs, each weighing about a half pound at birth. At one month, cubs begin to follow their mother as she finds food. Most cubs remain with the mother for two years.
People and Asiatic Black Bears: Conflict between humans and Asiatic black bears, usually over livestock depredation and timber damage, has resulted in many humans fearing Asiatic black bears. Legal protection has been difficult to establish (some governments encourage trapping of bears), although the IUCN has classified the Asiatic black bear as a “vulnerable species” due to habitat loss (deforestation) and the parts trade (meat, gall bladders and bones) for traditional Chinese Medicine. Several populations have been issued legal protection in recent years, but lack of enforcement and negative attitudes toward bears present serious challenges for conservation. A crash in acorn production in 2010 led to overwhelming conflicts between humans and black bears in Japan, resulting in a major spike in human-related bear mortality. If the present rate of hunting and deforestation continues, these bears may become extinct.
North American Black Bear (ursus americanus)
The North American black bear is the most abundant bear in the world. They are highly adaptable animals that are known to live in a wide variety of habitats, but typically inhabit forested land. Currently,North American black bears exist in 95% of their former range, and they are even returning to forested areas in or near major cities.
Habitat: Forested areas are the black bear’s primary habitat, but they can adapt to a variety of habitats. They typically prefer forests with an understory that provides both food and protection. They may also inhabit low elevation swamps or high mountain meadows. They adapt well to a variety of habitats as long as they have a good supply of food, water, shelter, and space to live in. Each year humans move farther into black bear habitat, forcing bears to learn how to under new conditions, where natural food sources, dens, and water are harder to access, and human-related food sources offer dangerous temptations.
Distribution: About 400,000 black bears live across North America, ranging from northern Mexico to the edge of the tree line in sub-arctic Canada and Alaska. In the United States, there are stable black bear populations in 35 states from the southeast to the Appalachian Mountains, in New England, the lower MIssissippi valley, the upper Midwest, throughout the Rocky Mountains, the southwest, the west coast, and Alaska.
Physical Characteristics: Ursus americanus ranges from black or brown to the rare white phase. Habitat can strongly influence color phases, and a female can give birth to cubs that are different colors in the same litter. They keep warm and dry because of A layer of soft, thick underfur next to the skin keeps them warm and dry, while a thicker, coarse outer layer of guard fur protects the bears from moisture, insect bites and stings. Because of confusion in common names and colors, it is best to call brown phase black bears exactly that.
Size: The American black bear is the fourth largest of the world’s eight bear species. Adult males can weigh between 175 and 500 pounds (78-225 kg), but average 250-300 pounds (112-135 kg) in the fall. Females range between 100 and 300 pounds (45-135 kg) and average 175 pounds (78 kg). They generally stand two to three feet (60-91 cm) tall at the shoulders standing on all fours, and five feet (152 cm) tall when standing upright.
Features: American black bears have a long, pointed muzzle with an aquiline profile, and large, prominent ears. The muzzle is often a lighter color than the rest of the bear’s head, and some bears have white chest patches of varying shapes. Their claws are sharp and curved, for climbing trees, and much shorter than the grizzly/brown bear’s claws. When standing on all fours, rump is higher than front shoulders, and black bears lack the distinct shoulder hump that grizzly/brown bears have. Black and brown bears cannot be distinguished by color alone. In some areas of the US and Canada, brown phase black bears are referred to as brown bears, but this leads to confusion.The pure white phase of the black bear along the British Columbia coast is a distinct subspecies called the Kermode bear, or spirit bear, but white phase black bears can occur anywhere, however rare. These bears are not albino, as their skin and eyes have pigment.
Diet: American black bears are opportunistic omnivores, and their diet varies by season, depending on which foods are abundant. They feed on grasses, forbs, roots and corms, berries, nuts, acorns, insects, fish, carrion, rodents, moose, deer fawns and elk calves, among other things. When food is scarce, black bears may seek human-related food sources, such as garbage, pet food, domestic fruit trees, and chickens.
Behavior: Black bears are active for periods throughout the day and night, but are most active in the morning and later in the evening. They rest in day beds made in dense vegetation within secluded forest areas, or high in tall trees to escape the summer heat. They are very agile and can move quickly, up to 35 miles per hour, for short distances. Black bears can climb trees quickly and easily to escape predators and other bears and to feed on fruit and nuts. Females will often cache their cubs in trees for protection while they fish for salmon, or seek other food sources.
Hibernation: Most black bears sleep during cold months in a state of torpor to conserve energy when food is scarce, but populations inhabiting warmer areas may remain active year-round. Black bears are not true hibernators, because they sometimes wake up during the winter and may leave the den to roam, and their body temperature does not drop significantly during torpor. Dens are often constructed on an insulated spot on the side of a hill, or in caves or large hollowed-out trees. During summer and early fall, black bears enter a state called “hyperphagia”, eating as much as possible to store in their body as fat to get through the long winter.
Reproduction: American black bears mate in late spring or early summer, but the embryo does not start to grow until the female enters her den in the fall, and pregnancy is dependent on the bear gaining enough bodyweight to support cubs. Cubs are born in January or February while the female is denned. Cubs weigh about 1/2 pound at birth. Litters range from one to five cubs (two cubs average), and survival rate is low. By April or May, cubs are ready to leave their winter den. One of the first things they learn upon emerging from the den is to climb trees for protection from predators, including other bears. Females might build a day bed at the base of a tree, so that they are hidden. At several months of age, cubs play together and begin to feed themselves. They stay close to their mother for another year or so.
People and North American Black Bears: Black bears tend to shy away from humans, except when humans are negligent with food, garbage, and other bear-attractants. Black bears can be found living in forest habitats not far from cities like Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Seattle, and even New York City. They can easily become conditioned to eating human food, and may eventually stop foraging in the forest and become a dangerous nuisance to humans. Relocation efforts often fail, because bears will travel long distances over difficult terrain to return to their home range. Food-conditioned bears are often killed by humans. The most effective way to prevent conflict with bears is to address the root of the problem, and eliminate bear attractants from residential areas, campgrounds, and cabins. Many black bear populations are legally hunted, but they are also illegally poached for the bear parts trade for traditional Chinese Medicine. Black bear habitat is shrinking as humans develop houses, roads, agricultural lands, and resorts. Educating people about co-existing with bears and other wildlife is critical for the long-term persistence of wild bear populations, and the safety of humans and bears.
Brown Bear (ursus arctos)
The brown bear is a wide ranging animal that requires vast tracts of wild, roadless land. Accordingly, this species is considered to be an enduring symbol of true wilderness in North America. Brown bears have been called “the bear with too many names,” because their wide variety of sizes and colors leads to many different common names. The grizzly, coastal, and European brown bear are all the same species, and the Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi), is a subspecies inhabiting the Kodiak archipelago. In the US, Ursus arctos living in interior Alaska or the lower 48 states are typically referred to as grizzly bears (because of the common silver-tipped hairs that lend a grizzled appearance), while the same bears tend to be called brown bears throughout their coastal range, where the abundant salmon allows them to grow larger and sport a thick, lustrous coat. The abundant food source allows coastal brown bears to thrive in more concentrated populations than in the interior, and these bears face less competition for food, often resulting in a mellower temperament than the interior grizzlies, and a greater tolerance for other bears and humans. Today, the grizzly bear in the lower 48 has been destroyed in 98% of its former range. Roads, ranching, overhunting and increasing human encroachments could eventually eliminate the species.
Habitat: Brown bears can be found in a variety of habitats, but they prefer wilderness regions containing river valleys, mountain forests, and open meadows, with low road-density. Home ranges are among the largest of all land mammals: up to 800 – 1000 square miles, but in prime habitat with abundant food sources, some home ranges may be as small as 10 – 24 square miles, especially for females. The coastal Alaskan brown bears fish for extensive periods on salmon streams, but also feed on berries, grasses, sedges, skunk cabbage, and other vegetation.
Distribution: Ursus arctos is the most widely distributed bear species in the world. Brown bears can be found in areas of the northwestern United States, western Canada, and Alaska, as well as Eastern and Western Eurasia. As many as 60,000 grizzlies once occupied the lower 48 states. Today, fewer than 1200 grizzlies survive in protected parks and wilderness areas within the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Ursus arctos was listed in 1975 as threatened in the lower 48 states. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population was de-listed in 2007, but the US Federal Court restored the threatened status in 2009, citing the loss of the important food source, white bark pine, associated with global climate change, among other factors. In western Canada, there are still significant populations of grizzlies, but in Alberta, fewer than 1000 grizzly bears remain, a mere shadow of the 6000 which once roamed that province.
Physical Characteristics: Brown bears vary in color from blonde to black, and very rarely, even white, but they are usually medium brown with light tipped fur on their head and upper body. Coloration may change with the seasons. Their thick coats composed of coarse, protective, guard hairs and soft underfur keep them warm in the winter. In summer, they shed a lot of underfur and can look shaggy. Silver-tipped guard hairs result in a “grizzled” appearance that lends the interior North American bears the nickname, grizzly bear. Gender and nutrition influences the size of brown bears. The average weight of an interior male grizzly is 550 pounds (247 kg) and 350 pounds (157 kg) for females. Brown bears of coastal Alaska and British Columbia may weigh over 1000 pounds (450 kg). They typically stand 3 – 4 feet (91 – 122 cm) tall at the shoulder on all fours, and 6 – 7 feet (183 – 213 cm) tall when standing upright, but can also grow much larger with abundant food sources.
Features: Brown bears are characterized by a wide, massive head, dish-shaped face with long snout, long claws, and a prominent shoulder hump. The hump is a thick wad of fat and muscle for digging roots and corms under the ground, and its appearance is enhanced by longer fur at the top of the shoulders. Brown bears have round, small ears in comparison with the longer-eared black bear, and long, slightly curved claws that are 2 – 4 inches (5-10 cm) or more in length.
Diet: Brown bears are omnivorous, opportunistic feeders, which means they eat both plants and animals, and adapt well to new food sources. Their diet varies extensively according to seasonal and habitat differences, but includes everything from grasses, roots, berries, and nuts to insects, fish and mammals, such as rodents, deer, elk, and moose. They will feed on scavenged carcasses and prey on live animals. Brown bears will ferociously defend a carcass they are feeding on.
Behavior: Brown bears are active periodically throughout the day and night, but will often alter their habits to avoid humans in areas of high human use. In the heat of the day, they will rest in day beds in dense vegetation, including willows, alders, dense forest, and tall grass. Brown bears are powerful diggers. They use their claws to find roots, bulbs and rodents, as well as to make winter dens on steep mountain slopes. Most brown bears spend their time alone except when breeding or raising cubs.
Hibernation: Brown bears are not true hibernators, but they slow down their metabolism and sleep through most of the winter in order to save energy when there is little food available outside for them to eat. This is called a state of torpor. These bears sleep in remote locations where they den, usually in high elevation. They are able to sleep through the winter by living on reserves of fat stored on their bodies during the summer and fall, but they wake up occasionally throughout the winter, and may even emerge from their dens.
Reproduction: Brown bears mate in early summer, but the embryo (blastocyst) does not implant and start to grow until the mother enters the den in late fall. Successful implantation depends on the female gaining enough body weight to sustain pregnancy. The cubs are born in January or February while the mother is sleeping. They usually weigh about one pound at birth, and their litters range between one and five, with two on average, and survival rates are low. The cubs are born blind and helpless, but by drinking their mother’s rich milk they gain weight quickly. By late April or early May, the cubs are ready to leave the den and explore with their mothers. Mother bears are renowned for their ferocity when defending their young, especially against the threats of other bears and humans. Cubs usually stay with their mothers until they are 2 – 3 years old. In higher quality habitat where food is abundant, cubs may disperse earlier than in sparser habitat, where they have a lot more to learn to survive.
People and Brown Bears: People have been fearful of brown bears for as long as we have shared habitat. Many brown bears have been killed because of this fear, while others have been killed for food and the fur trade. Vehicle and train collisions account for a large percentage of human-related bear mortality. Today, most brown bears only survive in protected or remote areas. Because grizzlies in the lower 48 states are considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, wildlife managers are trying to actively protect grizzly populations and their critical habitat. A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered if protection measures are not implemented. Hopefully, with careful management and a solid recovery plan, grizzly populations will increase and will no longer need Endangered Species Act protection, but it is up to us to conserve and connect their habitats, and to behave responsibly so that humans and bears can coexist. For adequate recovery, humans need to stop harassing, pursuing, hunting, feeding, getting too close to, and killing grizzly bears. Their habitat needs much better protection from human development and roads. People sometimes leave garbage and food in places where bears can easily find it. Once corrupted with food scraps, or even food containers or wrappers, bears can quickly develop a taste for garbage and then go looking for it. When bears are human food-conditioned, they get into trouble because they scare and anger people with the damage they cause to property and the danger they represent. When a bear becomes a problem it may be relocated, but it often returns to its home range, or gets into trouble in its new home, resulting in the bear’s death. Grizzlies are an important top carnivore in the ecosystem, and they are animals that can teach us a lot about living responsibly with wildlife and respecting the wilderness and habitat where they make their homes. Because of large and diverse habitat requirements, conserving for grizzly bears results in conservation of many other species that share the same habitat.
Panda Bear (ailuropoda melanoluca)
Is the giant panda more like a bear or a raccoon? They certainly look bearish, but they have a few unusual features that have caused confusion, and led people to believe the panda was not a bear for many years. After almost a century of debate, scientists were finally able to test the genes from pandas and determine that they are actually a species of bear. Pandas are the rarest of bears. They are found in a wilderness area in China that continues to disappear due to human encroachment.
Habitat: Pandas prefer cold, damp coniferous forests between 4000 and 11,000 feet high in elevation. They require dense bamboo stands for food and cover.
Distribution: Today, pandas exist in only six small areas along the eastern rim of the Tibetan plateau. Most of the bears that remain in the wild live in a chain of fourteen reserves, established by the Chinese government. The number of giant pandas living in the wild is uncertain, but estimates range from 1,000 to 2,500. There are another 200 of the bears in zoos, mostly in China.
Physical Characteristics: Pandas are the most distinctively marked of all bears. Their basic coloring is white with black ears, eye patches, legs, feet, chest, and shoulders. In the wild their coloring can look more red or brown than black. Pandas have a short tail which is sometimes black. Their fur is thick with coarse outer hairs and dense woolly underfur. Adult pandas are between 51/2 and 6 feet (168-182 cm) long and may weigh over 200 pounds (90 kg).
Features: Pandas look a lot like other bears in terms of general shape and body structure. Because they chew tough bamboo stalks for nourishment, they have highly developed muscles around their jaw and large crushing molars, giving the head a round appearance. Panda forepaws are very flexible and have an enlarged wrist bone that acts as a unique ‘sixth digit,’ which works sort of like a human thumb, for handling bamboo. Unlike other bears, pandas do not have heel pads on their hind feet, but they can still move around the dense forest silently and easily. Pandas have an extremely thick esophagus for swallowing large splinters of bamboo.
Diet: Pandas have a very specific diet consisting almost entirely of leaves, stems, and shoots of various bamboo species. They spend between 10 and 12 hours eating bamboo every day. An adult can consume between 26 and 33 pounds (11-14 kg) per day. Although they are too slow to catch most animals, they have been known to eat meat when the opportunity arises.
Behavior: Individual pandas may share the same ranges, but they try to avoid each other, and spend most of their time alone. When they are not eating they are usually resting. They are most active during dawn and in the early evening.
Hibernation: On a diet of bamboo, it is impossible for panda bears to accumulate enough fat to sleep through the winter. Instead of hibernating in higher, cooler climates the bears go down to lower elevations with warmer weather and better food availability.
Reproduction: Pandas reproduce very slowly, and infant mortality is high. Females cannot reproduce until they are about 5 – 7 years old. Pandas mate in the spring, and the mother usually gives birth to one to three cubs in the early fall, but she will often only raise one cub, due to the high nutritional requirements and the limitations of the bamboo diet. Newborn pandas are tiny, only about a quarter of a pound. Cubs usually stay with their mothers until they are a year and a half old.
People and Panda Bears: The giant panda is considered to be China’s national treasure and has become a worldwide symbol of conservation. Unfortunately, it has also become an endangered species and is severely threatened due to habitat loss and poaching. Bamboo forests continue to give way to agriculture and human settlements. When bamboo becomes scarce, pandas have nowhere to go for a new supply, and the habitat becomes too small to sustain them. In order to save the giant panda, serious efforts must be made to establish more wildlife reserves, discourage deforestation, and educate the public about wildlife conservation and coexisting with large mammals. Fortunately, a lot of people around the world are concerned about their future. Educating people worldwide about the giant panda’s possible extinction has begun to pay off, and many realize that pandas may go extinct unless they do something.
Interested in seeing polar bears in the wild? Visit our field courses page to learn about our educational trips to polar bear country.
Polar Bear (ursus maritimus)
Polar bears, or “sea bears” are largest species of bear. They live at the top of the world in the Arctic Circle. Current populations are under threat because of loss of sea ice associated with global climate change, as well as legal and illegal hunting pressure, oil and gas development, air and water pollution, and other negative human impacts, including tourism.
Habitat: Polar bears live in the Arctic Circle, including the North Pole and northern parts of Europe, Asia, and North America, but do not live in the Antarctic. Arctic extremes include temperatures that range from -80 to +90 degrees Fahrenheit, and light that ranges from almost total darkness in the winter to almost constant daylight in the summer. To deal with these extremes, the polar bear must be fairly adaptable.
Distribution: There are approximately 20,000-25,000 wild polar bears world-wide, with about 60% of those in Canada. Populations inhabit Greenland, Siberia, and Alaska, and a small population in Norway.
Physical Characteristics: Polar bear fur can appear pure white, yellow, or even greenish, depending on light conditions. The outer fur called ‘guard hair’ is actually clear and hollow (like a tiny glass tube), which was once believed to trap the sun’s heat and light. The guard-hairs are hard, smooth, and shed water easily. A dense layer of underfur traps a layer of air next to the skin to keep them warm. The fur layers actually keep the skin dry, even when the bears swim in icy water. Their skin is black to absorb heat from the sun. Under the skin they also have a thick layer of insulating fat. In the summer months, some of the more southern polar bears will bed down in summer dens in the permafrost to keep cool.
Size: Polar bears are one of the largest land predators in the world. They can reach 4 feet tall (122 cm) or more at the shoulder. When they stand up on their hind legs they may be over 10 feet (305 cm) tall. Male polar bears weigh between 800 and 1600 pounds (360-720 kg), while females usually weigh between 400 and 800 pounds (180-360 kg). The largest recorded polar bear was a male that was over 12 feet (365 cm) tall and weighed over 2200 pounds (990 kg)!
Features: Polar bears have a large body with a long neck and a proportionately smaller head than other bears. Appearance varies throughout their range, with the bears of Siberia and Alaska looking more like white brown bears, while the bears of eastern Canada, Greenland, and Norway are sleeker, with a longer neck and smaller, tapered head with small ears. They have powerful, well-developed muscles in their hind legs and neck. Their massive forepaws are webbed for swimming. The soles of their feet are almost completely covered in dense fur to insulate them from cold. The parts of their feet that are not covered with fur are rough like sandpaper to prevent their slipping on ice. They have a short tail and small ears. Polar bears are genetically closely related to brown bears, and the two species can mate and produce viable offspring. This suggests that polar bears may actually have been more accurately classified as a subspecies of Ursus arctos.
Diet: Polar bears are excellent hunters and subsist mainly on ringed seals, although they eat a variety of food, including a number of small birds. The bears are adept at catching and killing the seals, which can weigh up to 150 pounds (67 kg). They often eat only the skin and the fat and leave the rest of the meat for scavengers, because a lot of water and energy are required to digest the meat. During the summer, the bears will eat seaweed (kelp) and range inland in search of alternative foods such as berries and grass. They do not eat fish. Most fish in the Arctic Ocean are very deep and polar bears are not deep sea divers. Typically, polar bears kill a seal every five or six days, when sea ice is present. Polar bears can go for weeks without eating because they have huge stomachs and can eat up to 150 pounds (67 kg) of food at one sitting. A very large, healthy adult male could conceivably live for a year on its fat stores.
Behavior: Polar bears can range over 20,000 square miles. They generally stay close to shore, but have been seen up to 100 miles inland. Loss of sea ice is causing individual bears to move inland, southward, and to new areas in search of food. This is resulting in more conflict with humans, as polar bears seek food in human settlements, or show up in places where humans are not accustomed to sharing habitat with them. Polar bears spend a lot of time in water to catch food or escape danger, and are actually considered marine mammals. They are excellent swimmers and have been recorded more than 100 miles from the nearest shore in the water. They use their enormous webbed front paws as paddles and hind feet as rudders.
Hibernation: Only pregnant females hibernate in winter. They use ice dens, similar to igloos, that they construct as temporary shelters. Most polar bears do not den, but enter a sort of ‘walking hibernation’ where they remain active, but rely on stored fat for energy. Sometimes they dig summer dens in the tundra or along coastal bluffs to escape summer heat and insects.
Reproduction: Female polar bears start reproducing when they are between 4 and 5 years old. They mate in the late spring and give birth to two cubs in late December or early January. Like other North American species of bears, the embryo does not implant and begin to grow until the female enters the den in the late fall, and depends on the female gaining enough body weight to sustain pregnancy. At birth, cubs weigh only about two pounds each and are not much bigger than a rat. They are born blind and hairless. Fortunately, their mother keeps them warm and nourished until they are able to generate more of their own body heat. By April, the cubs usually weigh about 25 pounds (11 kg). They stay with their mothers for two to three years to learn what they need about survival. The females are very protective of their young due to predatory males and other threats.
People and Polar Bears: For thousands of years, Inuit people have lived with polar bears and occasionally killed them for food or clothing. Historically, Inuit never overhunted the animals because it was too dangerous and hunting weapons were primitive. More recently, polar bears have been sought after by trophy hunters around the world and have been overhunted. By the late 1970’s scientists recognized that polar bear populations were too low, and needed legal protection. Eventually the overhunting was brought under control by the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat in 1975. In the 1970’s, biologists also learned that polar bears were suffering due to high levels of toxins in the food chain, because of air and water pollution from more populated areas in the south, carried by currents to the Arctic. Animals store toxins in fat cells, and arctic animals are highly susceptible to these toxins, because they tend to have large fat stores to survive the cold. The toxins travel through the food chain to polar bears and indigenous people subsisting on traditional diets.
Currently: The biggest threat to polar bears is the impact of humans on their habitat. Even though the Arctic only supports small human populations, we all threaten the habitat through our dependance on oil and gas. Oil and gas extraction can be very damaging to arctic ecosystems including the polar bears. While this threat continues to grow around the circumpolar region, global climate change, and the resulting loss of sea ice, presents the greatest threat to polar bear populations at this time. Polar bears depend on the sea ice to hunt their main food staple, the ringed seal. The ice season is getting shorter on average, and in some regions, such as Alaska, polar bears have to swim farther to reach the ice. Without adequate sea ice, female polar bears cannot consume enough food to reproduce, or to sustain those cubs that are born. A decline in cub production and survival seriously threatens the persistence of polar bear populations. There is still a lot to learn about the impacts of human expansion and encroachment, increasing tourism, and global climate change on the polar bears. In 2008, after long political delays, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the polar bear in Alaska as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Although the animal is legally considered threatened due to climate change (among other factors), the Bush administration approved a rule preventing the ESA from effecting new policy on climate change and greenhouse gases as a result. The Obama administration continues to uphold this rule. In 2010, the USFWS designated large portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as Critical Habitat, but only after approving certain oil and gas leases that will be grandfathered in, despite the new designation. Currently, a federal judge has remanded the polar bear’s ESA listing back to the USFWS, requiring the agency to justify listing the polar bear as threatened rather than endangered, which would guarantee the bear and its habitat stronger protection. Meanwhile, Alaska and Siberia are considering a joint hunt of their shared polar bear population.
Sloth Bear (melursus ursinus)
For a long time, sloth bears were confused with another tropical animal called a sloth. These shaggy, docile bears have a unique appearance and some interesting adaptations. Although little is known about the social habits of sloth bears, it is generally assumed that they are solitary animals, except for females with cubs.
Habitat: Sloth bears live in warm, humid forests or in grasslands near the equator. They can live in a wide variety of forest types from dry thorn forests in the north, to wet tropical forests in the south.
Distribution: Sloth bears live in Southeast Asia, primarily in the forest areas of Sri Lanka and India. They have also been reported in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Burma. Their populations are estimated to be between 1000 and 7000.
Physical Characteristics: Sloth bears have long, shaggy black fur with a large white or yellow Y-shaped patch of hair on their chests. They have particularly long hair around their necks that looks like a mane. They have little fur on their bellies and the insides of their legs.
Size: Adult sloth bears usually weigh about 300 pounds, females being somewhat smaller than the males. They are usually 3 feet high at the shoulder and about 6 feet long.
Features: Sloth bears have a long muzzle with agile, protruding lips, and nostrils that can be closed when raiding termite mounds. They have a hollowed-out bony palate and no front teeth so they can suck ants and termites out of their nests. People can sometimes actually hear the bear sucking up insects from 300 feet away. They have white, curved, blunt claws that are up to 3 inches (7 cm) long. Their tails are approximately 6 inches (15 cm) long, which is long for a bear.
Diet: Sloth bears eat a wide variety of different plants, animals, and insects, but prefer termites. They will eat fruit, raid beehives for honey and larvae, scavenge from tiger kills, or eat cultivated crops such as sugarcane, corn, and yams, but this often results in conflict with humans.
Behavior: Sloth bears are mostly nocturnal, feeding and traveling by night, and sleeping in the day. They are excellent tree climbers, and are often seen hanging from a tree limb like a sloth. Like other bears, sloth bears tend to be solitary creatures.
Hibernation: Sloth bears do not hibernate. During monsoon season they may head for caves or other retreats, where they become lethargic and wait out the rains.
Reproduction: Sloth bears mate year-round. Most cubs are born in December or January in a nest that the mother builds in a cave or under rocks. Typically, two or three cubs are born in a litter. They are born blind and helpless. By one month of age, sloth bear cubs are able to travel through the forest with their parents. The cubs sometimes ride on their mothers’ back by holding onto her shaggy coat. They stay with their mothers for 2 to 3 years, or until they reach approximately 50 pounds (22 kg), when they begin to travel on their own.
People and Sloth Bears: Due to increasing human population and encroachment for housing and agriculture, sloth bears and their habitat are disappearing. Logging and other resource extraction pose serious threats, both direct and induced. Sloth bears live in a part of the world with widespread poverty, so wildlife conservation is not considered to be a top priority. Fortunately, in India, conservation efforts to save the Bengal tiger have also helped to conserve sloth bears and their habitat.
Spectacled Bear (tremarctos ornatus)
Spectacled bears get their name from the light colored rings around their eyes that make some of the bears look like they are wearing glasses, but they are also known as the Andean bear. These shy bears are the only species that lives in South America. Little is known about these rare bears because of a lack of research and the remoteness of their habitat.
Habitat: Spectacled bear habitat includes coastal and inland deserts, dry forests, rain forests, cloud forests, steppe, and plateaus. They tend to inhabit areas that are isolated and inhospitable and avoid humans whenever they can. Spectacled bears prefer the warm, humid, and foggy clouds that are above the rainforest floor at higher elevations.
Distribution: Spectacled bears live in South America, in the heart of the Andes in Venezuela, Colombia, and the coastal foothills of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
Physical Characteristics: They have black to brown shaggy fur with distinct white or yellow markings on the face around their eyes. Because they live in warm climates, their fur is thinner than that of North American bear species.
Size: Adult spectacled bears can weigh between 175 and 385 pounds (79-173 kg). When standing on all fours, the average male measures about 30 inches (76 cm) tall at the shoulder, and approximately 7.5 feet (228 cm) from nose to tail. Females are slightly smaller.
Features: Spectacled bears have long claws that allow them to climb trees very well. They also have large, flat molars so they can chew very tough plants that are found in the rainforest.
Diet: Spectacled bears mostly eat vegetation, but are omnivorous and will eat meat when given the opportunity. They love fruit and will spend days eating and sleeping in fruit trees. They will also eat palms, cacti, orchid bulbs, and insects.
Behavior: Spectacled bears are generally nocturnal, feeding and traveling at dawn and dusk. They often spend their days in tree nests that are constructed as a platform to sleep in.
Hibernation: Spectacled bears do not hibernate, because they live in a warm climate where food is abundant throughout the year. Females will build nests for newborn cubs, but otherwise remain active throughout the year.
Reproduction: Female spectacled bears can give birth to cubs by the time they are 4 years old. Usually they have 2 cubs in January, which is summer in the southern hemisphere. The cubs are born helpless and blind, but by the time they are a month old they are able to travel around the forest with their mother, riding on her back.
People and Spectacled Bears: Spectacled bears are elusive, and very few people have been fortunate enough to see them in the wild. The spectacled bear held a very important place ancient Incan religious beliefs. Today, the spectacled bear is still respected in native culture, but their numbers are diminishing due to conversion of wild forest land for agricultural purposes. Population estimates are difficult to determine because spectacled bears are so elusive and live in remote places.
Deforestation is the largest threat to spectacled bears, and the associated increase in wildfire and road-related mortality are becoming larger threats each year, as more forest land is converted to farmland. Hunting, poaching, and the illegal bear-parts and exotic pet trades also pose major threats. In 1975 the spectacled bear was listed on Appendix I on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that the international trade in the species was prohibited from that time forward. Unfortunately, enforcement has been lacking and rarely supported by local personnel. Therefore, the spectacled bear is continually threatened by illegal activities and habitat loss.
Sun Bear (helarctos malayanus)
The sun bear, also known as the honey bear, is also the world’s smallest and least studied bear. Because they are so rare, research on sun bears is difficult.
Habitat: The sun bear thrives in the hot and humid lowland tropics where it rains more than 100 inches (254 cm) a year, and temperatures stay constant around 78 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit, but the type of rainforest they inhabit varies throughout their range. They spend most of their life in trees, where they can forage for a variety of fruits and nuts year-round, and feed on insects that provide an important source of protein.
Distribution: Today, the sun bear exists in forests throughout Southeast Asia from northern Burma and Bangladesh, south and east across Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, and south to Malaysia and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Deforestation, often caused by the palm oil and rubber industries, is destroying a large portion of their range, particularly in the northern and western areas.
Physical Characteristics: Sun bears have short, sleek and dense black fur, unlike other bear species. Their thick coat may be hot in the tropical humidity, but it protects them from dirt, mud, and insects.
Size: Male bears weigh approximately 100 pounds (45 kg), the smallest bear species.
Features: Sun bears have a long tongue and snout for eating insects and extracting honey and larvae from beehives.
Diet: Sun bears are omnivores that will eat anything they can find in the rain forest, from fruit and honey to insects, snails, eggs, lizards, and rodents. They are very good at skimming through the jungle to find any kinds of food they can get their paws on. They particularly love honey and bee larvae.
Behavior: Sun bears are very good tree climbers, because that is where they find most of their food. They usually spend most of their day sleeping and sunbathing in nests that they make in trees. After napping through the heat of the day, they spend much of the night foraging for food.
Hibernation: Sun bears do not hibernate because they live in such a warm climate with abundant food, and can remain active all year.
Reproduction: Breeding and birthing occur throughout the year, so there is no defined breeding season. They usually give birth to a pair of cubs in a remote part of the forest. The cubs are tiny when they are born, and their skin is nearly transparent. They are raised on the ground, under branches and heavy cover, until they are strong enough to climb trees on their own. They stay with their mother for at least a year to learn how to survive in the rainforest. Like other bears, males do not play a part in rearing the cubs.
People and Sun Bears: Because there is so little that scientists really know about sun bears, it is difficult to implement conservation plans. However, in 2007, the IUCN classified the sun bear as vulnerable. Habitat loss, poaching for the illegal trade in bear parts, legal killing of “nuisance bears”, and conflicts with humans are exerting significant impacts throughout the bears’ range and threaten its survival. Logging and conversion of rainforest to agricultural plantations not only immediately destroy the bears’ habitat, but also change the climate, causing the surrounding forests to become drier and increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfire. Laws have been written to protect the sun bear, but enforcement is lacking. Sun bears are also vulnerable to the illegal exotic pet trade.