8 Completely Unique Types of Bears

Close up of a sun bear in Asia
Close up of a sun bear in Asia.

MollyNZ / Getty Images

Bears are found in all corners of the world, from the icy sheets of the Arctic and the verdant forests of North America, to the mountain regions of South America and even throughout Europe and Asia. Varying greatly in size, bears are mammals who prefer a solitary lifestyle, with the exception of mothers who care for their cubs.

Bears have a wide variety of subspecies, though there are only eight main species of bears still around today. We’ve rounded up some interesting facts about the world’s eight species of bears, each one more unique than the last.

of 8

Polar Bear

Polar bear sitting on a sheet of ice

Joel Simon / Getty Images

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for. Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, with an estimated 22,000 to 31,000 left on Earth. Found around the Arctic Ocean on sea ice or adjacent coastal areas, it's no surprise that the Latin name translates to “sea bear.” These massive bears are known for their translucent water-repellent fur (though the skin underneath is actually jet black) and for being the largest bear in the world. The females typically weigh between 300 to 700 pounds, but the males can range anywhere from 800 to 1,300 lbs, making them the top predator in the Arctic.

Polar bears can sustain a pace of 6 miles per hour in the water and spend about half their time hunting for food, which usually consists of seals due to their high fat content. Polar bears have become somewhat of a spokesanimal for the climate crisis in recent years, as the potential loss of sea ice due to warming ocean temperatures is its biggest threat. In the United States, these bears are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (there are two polar bear subpopulations in Alaska).

of 8

Giant Panda Bear

Giant panda bear eating bamboo

David Lambert / EyeEm / Getty Images

Although you may have heard rumors that the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is more closely related to raccoons, like red pandas, DNA analysis has indicated that giant pandas are indeed part of the bear family. This vulnerable species weighs between 220 and 330 pounds and can grow to over 4 feet in size, which is pretty impressive considering they weigh only about 3.5 ounces at birth.

Wild panda bears are found in the forests of southwest China, primarily in the Yangtze Basin region, with just 1,864 left at last estimate, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Unlike most of its fellow species, pandas live almost entirely on plants — bamboo to be exact — wolfing down around 26 to 84 pounds of it per day. With such a specific diet, pandas are especially susceptible to habitat loss, so development regulation and protected reserve establishment is paramount for their survival. The good news for these black and white beauties is that wild panda numbers are finally on the rebound after years of decline, prompting the IUCN to change its status from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2016.

of 8

Brown Bear

A brown bear in Alaska with a salmon

Paul Souders / Getty Images

The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is, unsurprisingly, known for its brown fur, but there are several different subspecies that can range from cream-colored to almost black. As the most widely distributed bear on Earth, brown bears live in North America, Europe, and Asia, in a variety of habitats like deserts, high forests, and snowy mountains. They are extremely strong and boast high endurance, often digging their own dens before spending the months from October to December in a deep sleep. This period of inactivity, which isn’t true hibernation, varies depending on the location and weather, and in some areas may be shorter in length or not happen at all.

Brown bears are omnivores and will eat practically anything as long as it’s nutritious, generally foraging in the mornings, since they aren’t the best climbers. They’ve been known to travel long distances for food, especially in search of salmon streams or areas with high berry production. This is typically the only time brown bears are seen in groups, as they’re typically solitary animals.

of 8

American Black Bear

An American black bear in Canada

mlorenzphotography / Getty Images

American black bears (Ursus americanus) are found throughout most of North America, including Alaska and Canada, and as far south as northern Mexico. Thanks to their versatile diets, these bears have the ability to live in a variety of different habitats, their short claws enabling them to climb trees to find a variety of foods.

Fun fact: not all black bears have black fur. Their coats can range in color from white to cinnamon to dark brown and even light gray depending on where they live, and many populations can include a mixture of colors. The white black bear is revered by certain Indigenous tribes and is the result of a rare recessive gene from both the mother and father. Male black bears can sometimes grow larger than 600 pounds, but the females don’t often exceed 200 pounds. Black and brown bears are often found in the same regions, and can be distinguished by the black bear’s longer and rounder ears and the grizzly’s large shoulder humps.

of 8

Sun Bear

A sun bear climbing a tree

Tarik Thami / EyeEm / Getty Images

Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) are the smallest of the bear species and also the least studied bear in the world. The second rarest bear species (following the giant panda), the sun bear only occurs in the tropical lowland forests of Southeast Asia. These elusive animals get their names from the horseshoe shape on their chests, believed to resemble the setting or rising sun, no two of which are the same. Their 8- to 10-inch-long tongues help them siphon honey from bee hives, which helped them earn their nickname “honey bear,” but they also eat invertebrates and fruit.

Thanks to year-round food availability, sun bears do not hibernate, instead building nests high in the trees to sleep at night. These bears are extremely important to the local ecosystem, helping to disperse seeds and keep termite populations down. By busting open tree trunks in search of honey, they create nesting sites for other animals and enhance the forest’s natural nutrient cycle from digging for food in the soil.

of 8

Asiatic Black Bear

Asiatic black bears aka moon bears in Vietnam

Mark Newman / Getty Images

The medium-sized, dark-colored Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) is known for its white v-shaped patch on its chest and large ears (larger than the American black bear). Found in forested areas throughout southern Asia, especially India, Nepal, and Bhutan, they’ve also been reported in parts of Russia, Taiwan, and Japan. They love high altitude habitats, sometimes as high as 9,900 feet, but are known to descend to lower elevations in the wintertime.

They have great eyesight, hearing, and smell, and are primarily vegetarians, though they have been known to sample the occasional meat source. The main predators of the Asiatic black bear is the Siberian tiger, but they are also often targeted by humans when they wander onto farms in search of livestock prey.

of 8

Sloth Bear

Photo of a shaggy sloth bear

Ken Watkins / Getty Images

Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) are mostly found in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan in forested areas and grasslands, though they used to be more common in India and Sri Lanka. They have long, shaggy black coats, an adaptation believed to indicate susceptibility to cold stress, and long snouts that have been compared to those of anteaters. Females weigh between 120 and 200 pounds, while the males are much larger, typically between 176 and 300 pounds.

With a name like sloth bear, one might think that these nocturnal bears would be sleepy or slow, but it is actually quite the opposite. Their massive feet and large claws in comparison to the rest of their bodies help sloth bears gallop faster than most humans can run. The name, instead, comes from early explorers, who noticed the dark bears hanging upside down in trees (they are excellent climbers). They are also believed to be the original dancing bears, as there are records of nomadic groups in India training sloth bears to perform and entertain crowds throughout history.

of 8

Spectacled Bear

Spectacled bear at Cayambe-Coca ecological reserve, Ecuador

Juan Carlos Vindas / Getty Images

The only species of bear native to South America, the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) enjoys the mountainous regions of the Andes in Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia, and have even been observed at elevations of 12,000 feet. Researchers believe that spectacled bears travel between different types of habitats throughout the year depending on the season, though the timing and drive for these migrations remain unknown. Despite being considered a medium-sized bear, they are one of the largest mammals in South America.

Usually black or dark reddish in color, the name “spectacled” comes from the white or tan markings around their eyes. With the exception of the giant panda, spectacled bears are the most herbivorous of the bear species. They are great climbers and spend most of their time in the trees, creating platforms or “nests” in the understory to browse for fruit and sleep.

View Article Sources
  1. "New Assessment Highlights Climate Change as Most Serious Threat to Polar Bear Survival - IUCN Red List." IUCN, 2015.

  2. "Giant Panda Facts." U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

  3. "Giant Panda." World Wildlife Fund.

  4. "Sun Bear Facts." Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.

  5. "Asiatic Black Bear." International Association for Bear Research and Management.

  6. "Ursus Thibetanus (Asiatic Black Bear)." Animal Diversity Web.

  7. "Melursus Ursinus (Sloth Bear)." Animal Diversity Web.

  8. "Tremarctos Ornatus (Spectacled Bear)." Animal Diversity Web.