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About Bears

Grizzly Bear and Black Bear Species Traits

Are all black bears black and all grizzly bears brown?
Colour is not generally a reliable characteristic to use in identifying a bear to species. Grizzly bears and black bears show considerable variation in coat colour and marking. For example, black bears can be black, white, or cinnamon. There is even a colour phase that is a steel bluish colour that is called a glacier bear. A white colour phase of the black bear that occurs on British Columbia’s mid to north coast is commonly referred to as spirit bear or Kermode bear. Grizzly bear coats can be shades of black, brown or blond and sometimes darker hairs can be noticeably blonde or silvery tipped. Both species can be a relatively uniform colour or have markings of various shades of colours.
Is size a reliable way to distinguish between black and grizzly bears?
No, size can vary depending on the age and gender of the bear. An adult black bear can be larger than a sub-adult (juvenile) grizzly bear. Size can also vary among geographic areas, as well. For example, grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains are generally smaller than grizzly bears in coastal British Columbia.


Are brown bears, Kodiak and grizzly bears different species?

Grizzly bears, brown bears, and Kodiak bears are all the same species (Ursus arctos). The name brown bear is commonly used for bears in Alaska whereas grizzly bear is more commonly used for bears in Canada and the southern USA. They are all the same subspecies of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). Kodiak bears, well known for their large size, have been identified as a different subspecies (Ursus arctos middendorffi). This subspecies occurs only on Kodiak Island.

While there has been much confusion about the taxonomy of brown bears (Ursus arctos), taxonomists agree there are at least two subspecies in North America -- the grizzly bear (U. a. horribilis) and the Kodiak bear (U. a. middendorffi). There is confusion about whether to consider others, like U. a. gyas and U. a. macfarlani, as separate subspecies. The Kodiak bear has lived separately on Kodiak, Afognak, and Shuyak Islands in southwestern Alaska for thousands of years with no interbreeding with other populations. However, there is no such geographic demarcation between the coastal U. a. gyas and the inland U. a. horribilis. There is a continuum of difference between the larger coastal brown bears and the interior individuals that are generally called grizzly bears. Coastal brown bears have a greater amount of animal protein in their diet, achieve larger size, and have slight differences in coloration. At any point from the coast to the interior there is interbreeding between the populations (Jonkel 1987, p 456-473).

Are black bears, cinnamon bears, Kermode bears (white bears) and glacier bears (blue bears) different species?

No, they are all the same genus and species (Ursus americanus). Some black bear subspecies go by different names, like Kermode bear, Cinnamon bear, or Glacier bear, but they are all black bears.

Taxonomists generally separate black bears into 16 subspecies based on minor differences in appearance and DNA.

Can grizzly bears climb trees?

Yes, grizzly cubs can climb trees very well. Sub-adult and adult grizzly bears can also climb trees. However, the ability of adult grizzly bears to climb trees is generally not considered as great as that of black bears. Black bears and younger grizzly bears, especially cubs, have shorter claws than adult grizzly bears. Shorter claws make it easier for them to climb trees. Nevertheless, adult grizzly bears have been observed climbing trees. Black bears are very good tree climbers.

Black bears and young grizzly bears use their claws to climb trees. Adult grizzly bears use the limbs of trees to climb, similar to humans, by pulling themselves up.

Are all black bears submissive?

Refer to the “Staying safe in Bear Country: a behavioural-based approach to reducing risk” video (Safety in Bear Country 2001).

Not all black bears are submissive to humans. Like humans, all bears have an individual personal space. When you enter their personal space you may force them to flee or defend themselves. The size of this space and the response of the bear can depend on many things including the individual bear, the species of bear, the past history of the bear and its prior experience with humans, and the situation. While black bears commonly climb trees or run for cover to escape a threat, a black bear may choose to defend itself. Black bears are strong animals that are capable of injuring or killing a human.

Ecology and Behaviour

Do bears mostly eat meat?

Bears are opportunistic omnivores that will eat meat and fish, but in some places such opportunities are rare. In general, a large part of the diet of grizzly and black bears is comprised of vegetation. Animals such as ungulate calves or ground squirrels are an excellent source of protein and fat. These are well-used foods in some geographic areas, particularly in early spring and late fall when the abundance or quality of food plant species may be lower. Spawning salmon also provide an important source of protein and fat, in some areas of British Columbia, particularly in fall when bears are focused on storing fat to survive winter denning and produce and feed cubs. Bears also eat insects such as ants and wasps.

Are bears afraid of people?
A bear’s response to people may be influenced by its previous experiences with people. Most bears are wary of and will avoid humans. However, a bear that has repeated exposure to humans at close range, without negative experiences, can learn to tolerate humans. These bears are called human-habituated. Some bears may even seek out the presence of humans in order to avoid more dominant bears. A human-habituated bear is not a tame bear. These bears may have a smaller personal space but they will still defend that space – creating a potentially dangerous situation. Very rarely, some bears have been bold enough to treat humans as prey.
Are bears stupid animals?
There is considerable evidence to indicate that bears are very intelligent animals. They have an ability to remember and return to any location where they obtained food in previous years. Many bears have found their way back to garbage dumps after being translocated far from their home. Furthermore, bear cubs learn all they need to survive from their mother in the 1.5 to 4 years she spends with them.
Do bears have poor hearing and eyesight?
Bears are able to see and hear very well. Their sense of smell is far better than that of a human. Their sense of smell is the sense they utilize most to find food.
Can bears run downhill or uphill?

Yes, they can run up and down hills very well and they can run faster uphill and downhill than the fastest human being.

Lean bears can run faster than 50 km per hour. Fat bears in their winter coats overheat and tire quickly when running.

Do bears hibernate?

“Bears in hibernation exhibit several characteristics distinct from the deep hibernation of rodents, such as lesser reduction in body temperature, protein conservation, lack of defecation and urination, and normal bone activity.” (Hellgren 1998). Both “denning” and “hibernation” are terms that are used in scientific literature for the winter period of inactivity of bears. While the length of denning varies, all bears in BC den for the winter even on the coast, where winters are warmer. Female bears with cubs of the year may den up to 6 months in coastal BC. Conversely, some bears may be active in any month of the year, particularly in coastal BC where salmon may be available in some winter months.

Hibernation is more an adaptation for escaping winter food scarcity than an adaptation for escaping winter cold for the black bear. Most dens are nearly as cold as the surrounding countryside. Dens may be burrows, caves, hollow trees, or simply nests on the ground. Bears gather leaves, grass, and twigs to make isolative beds on which to curl up, leaving only their well-furred backs and sides exposed to the cold. They sleep alone, except for mothers with cubs. Most bears use a different den each year. Hibernation lasts up to 7 months in the northern regions but is shorter in the south. Bears that find food year-round in the South may not hibernate at all. Hibernating bears cut their metabolic rates in half in order to survive long winters without eating, drinking, exercising, or passing wastes. Sleeping heart rate drops from a summer rate of between 60 and 90 beats per minute to a hibernating rate between 8 and 40 beats per minute. Rectal temperature drops only slightly, though, from 99-102 degrees F in the summer to 88-98 degrees F during hibernation. Bears can maintain this high body temperature despite their slower metabolism in winter because they develop highly insulative fur and reduce blood supplies to their limbs. Only the head and torso are maintained at the high temperatures. Maintaining the brain at a high temperature enables bears to maintain brain function for tending newborn cubs and responding to danger. Less than 1 percent of black bears die in dens. Their main threats are flooding and predators (wolves, dogs, active bears, and humans). Bears do not usually die of starvation in dens: most deaths from starvation are before or after hibernation and involve primarily cubs and yearlings. Disease is uncommon. Most parasites of bears are adapted to their host's hibernation cycle and reduce their demands in winter. Medical researchers are studying black bear hibernation to learn how bears cope with conditions that are problems for people. The findings are aiding studies of human kidney disease, gallstones, obesity, anorexia nervosa, and other problems. Researchers hope that knowledge of bear hibernation may someday even aid space travel.

Literature Referenced

BC Government. date unknown. Safety guide to bears in the wild. Brochure. Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection and Ministry of Forests. Victoria, BC, Canada

Ciarniello, L.M. 1997. Reducing human-bear conflicts: solution through better management of non-natural foods. Bear-human conflict committee: British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks.

Davis, H., D.W. Wellwood, and L.M. Ciarniello. 2002. “Bear Smart” community program: background report. British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. Victoria, BC, Canada

Hellgren, E.C, 1998. Physiology of hibernation in bears. Ursus 10:467-477.

Herrero S. 2003. Bear attacks: their causes and avoidance. New Revised Edition. McClellend & Stewart Ltd.

Ralf, R. 1995. History of bear/human conflict management in Jasper National Park: 1907 to 1995. Unpublished report.

Rogers, L.L., G.A. Wilker, and S.S. Scott 1991. Reactions of black bears to human menstrual odours. J. Wildl. Manage. 55(4):632-634

Safety in Bear Country Society. 2001. Staying safe in Bear Country: a behavioural-based approach to reducing risk. Video produced by Wildeye Productions. Atlin, BC in association with AV Action Yuko Ltd.

Town of Canmore. Unknown. Town of Canmore Bylaw 12-97: a bylaw to regulate the collection and disposal of waste within the Town of Canmore. Canmore, Alberta, Canada.