10 Things You Probably Don't Know About Bears

Bear leans back in a grassy area

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Bears have stolen our hearts and imaginations time and again, playing the role of many characters — from ferocious predator to cuddly companion. That's just as true of ancient myths as it is of modern movies.

Bears are found in North America, South America, Europe and Asia, and such a diversity in range has created an amazing variety of sizes, habits and food preferences.

There are eight species of bear around the world, including the North American black bear, the Asiatic black bear, the brown bear, the giant panda, the polar bear, the sloth bear, the sun bear and the spectacled bear.

From the polar bear, the largest land predator on Earth, to the giant panda that spends hours nibbling on bamboo, to the sloth bear that is known for feasting on ants and termites, the bears of the world have many fascinating traits. Learn more about the quirky side of these amazing animals.

Pandas have an extra wrist bone for eating

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Pandas are known for their affinity for munching on bamboo. Though their digestive system resembles that of a carnivore, they spend most of their time eating the leaves and soft middle parts of bamboo stems.

In order to get enough nutrition from the roughage, pandas will spend upward of 12 hours a day feeding, eating as much as 20-40 pounds of plant material. And in order to more easily feed on the stems and leaves, they have a special adaptation on their paws.

Pandas have an elongated wrist bone on each front paw, with padding on the end. This functions a bit like a thumb, offering better ability to maneuver bamboo stalks. It is not a true thumb, or even a proper digit, and the panda can't use it to grasp things. But the adaptation does provide the bear with a bit more stability when feasting on bamboo.

Sloth bears use their lips like a vacuum

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Speaking of interesting eating habits, we can't ignore the specially developed lips of the sloth bear — a feature that has earned it the alternative name of the labiated bear.

This species is native to India and in addition to eating fruits and flowers, it loves to feast on ants and termites. It does so by using its long lower lip, which can be wrapped around the outer edge of its nose, to create basically a suction hose out of the end of its snout. And because it lacks upper incisor teeth, it is able to easily suck up a meal of insects.

As Smithsonian National Zoo puts it, "A sloth bear uses its lips like a vacuum, making rapid, loud 'kerfump' noises as it sucks insects from their nests." The sucking sound they make when working away at a termite mound can be heard over 100 meters away. They can also close their nostrils so that bugs don't get up their nose while they're eating.

The most widespread bear species is ...

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... the brown bear.

Found across Europe and North America, the brown bear once ranged across northern Africa and throughout Asia. Though its range has shrunk significantly in modern times, the brown bear is considered one of the only bear species not threatened with extinction. The only other bear to share this status of Least Concern is the North American black bear.

This isn't to say that offshoots of the brown bear family tree haven't suffered. Several subspecies of brown bear, including the California grizzly and Atlas bear, have been pushed into extinction. Several more subspecies are at significant risk, including the Syrian brown bear and Himalayan brown bear. And the brown bear is regionally extinct from former habitat including many countries in Europe.

There are an estimated 200,000 brown bears left in the world.

Grolar and Pizzly bears taking over?

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As the global climate shifts, brown bears and polar bears are finding themselves wandering into each others' territory more often. The result is an increase occurrence of hybrid bears that are commonly called grolar bears or pizzly bears.

In 2006, a hunter shot what he thought was a polar bear, but which turned out to be a hybrid of a polar bear and a grizzly. This was the first confirmed instance of hybridization between the two species in the wild.

And what's more, the offspring are fertile. This means that polar bears and grizzly bears can affect the other species' gene pools. In 2010, a hunter killed a bear that turned out to be a second-generation hybrid, the offspring of a grolar bear and a grizzly bear.

Dr. Brendan Kelly, chief scientist and director of conservation research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, told Pacific Standard that the reason hybridization with fertile offspring can occur is that polar bears branched off from brown bears relatively recently in their evolutionary history. Despite distinct appearances and filling roles in different ecosystems, the two species aren't so very far removed from each other. Because our global climate is bringing the two species into more frequent contact with one another, the two branches of the family tree might just be in the process of combining back into one.

Pacific Standard writes, "[s]cientists observing grolar bears in captivity have noted that, on the one hand, the bears exhibit some typical hunting characteristics of polar bears, rather than grizzly bears—and on the other hand, that they are much weaker swimmers than polar bears. Kelly says that can be typical of hybrid species: that they sometimes lack the specialized instincts of either parent species, leaving them caught in between."

Brown bear or black bear?

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The bears in this photo are not brown bears, as you might have guessed at first glance. They are actually a cinnamon-colored black bear sow and her blonde cub.

Though they are called black bears, the species comes in a range of colors. According to the North American Bear Center, "Black bears come in more colors than any other North American mammal. They can be black, brown, cinnamon, blond, blue-gray, or white."

The variation in color has to do with their environment. A lighter color is more common in black bears in Western states, as the lighter shades help them blend in better in open meadows as well as reduces heat stress. In the Northeast, on the other hand, around 97 percent of black bears are black in color, whereas around half of the black bears in the West are shades of brown.

It is common for people to mistake black bears as grizzly bears when just looking at the color of their fur. However, there are quite a few characteristics that separate the species. Black bears are in general a noticeably smaller size, they lack the prominent shoulder hump of brown bears, and black bears have a more narrow, straight facial profile and taller ears than brown bears.

Spirit bears prowl the Northwest

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The most famous of the differently-colored black bears is probably the rare Kermode bear of British Columbia.

Also known as spirit bears for their role in the oral history of native peoples, these black bears have an all-white or cream-colored coat. Not albino, and not related in any way to polar bears, these bears simply display the result of a double recessive gene that is unique to the subspecies. About one-tenth of all black bears in this subspecies have such uniquely colored fur.

Outside of the Great Bear Rain Forest of British Columbia, only around one in 1 million black bears has a white coat, so the population of Kermode bears is truly special. There are only around 100-200 of these bears in existence. Due to habitat loss, primarily from logging, and other factors, the Kermode bear is at risk of disappearing if protections are not put in place.

The tiniest baby of them all

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Panda cubs are famous the world over. The giant panda is the poster child for endangered species so it is a very big deal when cubs are born in captivity. The Internet waits with bated breath to see how newborn cubs will fare when they're announced. But there is something just as fascinating about these cubs as their rarity — it's their size.

Aside from marsupials, panda cubs are the smallest newborn mammal relative to the mother's size in the world. They are around 1/900th the size of their mother, and weigh a mere 3 to 5 ounces at birth. Tiny, hairless, blind and essentially immobile, the panda cub is completely helpless and fragile when born.

It seems it would behoove a wild animal to have a slightly more capable infant, so why are panda cubs so small? "The answer has a lot to do with bamboo," reports The Washington Post. The panda's diet is low in nutritional value, which requires a panda to have a low metabolism.

"This low metabolism means the female's blood-oxygen level is relatively low. That tiny panda cub actually has a better shot at survival if it can breathe fully oxygenated air — and so being outside in the world is better than being inside the mother. Moreover, the kind of fatty acids that the cub needs can't be passed from the mother to the cub through the placental barrier," which means being on the outside of the mother and drinking milk rich in fatty acids is necessary to survival.

Because bears are at the top of the food chain, they don't have to worry too much about defending a tiny cub. So, the cub can take its sweet time growing up; a panda cub doesn't open its eyes for six weeks, doesn't start moving around for three months, and doesn't stop nursing for nine months.

Polar bears are considered marine mammals

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Polar bears are a special case among bear species. They're adapted for life on the ice, hunting seals and scavenging whale carcasses. Their life in the Arctic has fine-tuned their features such that they're actually they only bear species to be considered a marine mammal.

They depend on the ocean for their food and for their icy habitat. Thus, they are considered marine mammals and fall under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Because polar bears depend on the ocean for food and a place to live, they are particularly adapted to an icy and watery environment. Polar bears have partially webbed forepaws that help them speed through the water at speeds reaching six miles per hour, helping them to navigate from ice floe to ice floe. Their layer of blubber and thick coat provide buoyancy and protection from the cold water, and their nostrils close when under water. All these adaptations and more help them to hunt seals and thrive in what seems like a barren landscape.

All this also makes sense when you consider that pinnipeds — seals, sea lions and walruses — are actually the closest relative to bears on the evolutionary tree!

This is the only bear species in the Southern Hemisphere

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All of the world's bears live in the Northern Hemisphere, save one. The spectacled bear has cream-colored markings around its eyes, often resembling the frames of glasses, though the markings may extend down to the bear's neck and chest. Each bear has its own very unique set of markings, making it easy to distinguish individuals.

This species goes by two names, the spectacled bear after its unique coloration, or the Andean bear after the location in which it is found. They are found almost entirely in the Andes Mountains, ranging from western Venezuela down to western Bolivia, and sometimes even into northwest Argentina.

This species is not only the last remaining bear species in the Southern Hemisphere but it is also the last remaining short-faced bear species. Perhaps its most famous close relative is the giant short-faced bear which roamed North America up until around 11,000 years ago, and reached up to 12-feet tall when standing on its hind legs.

While that extinct relative was one of the largest land-based mammalian carnivores on Earth, the spectacled bear is only 4-6 feet long and enjoys a diet mostly of fruits and bromeliads, with the very occasional meal of meat from insects or rodents.

I'm medicine. Not!

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The sun bear is the smallest of the world's bear species, with a unique marking on its chest that resembles the rising sun and gives the bear its memorable name.

However, this beautifully optimistic name belies a more disturbing reality for many individuals of the species. Sun bears, as well as Asiatic black bears and sometimes brown bears, are killed for their paws, gall bladders and other parts that are used in traditional Chinese medicine, despite the fact that scientifically they have no medicinal value.

Arkive writes, "Malayan sun bears have recently been re-classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, primarily due to the continued destruction of its habitat... Another threat facing these bears is poaching, even within protected areas, to serve the trade in bear parts. Bear gall bladders and bile products are used in traditional medicines despite the fact that many herbal alternatives are equally beneficial, more readily available, legal and cheaper."

What's more, sun bears are one of the species used in bear bile farms, an immensely cruel practice in which bears are kept caged to extract bile for the medicinal trade, though again, there is no evidence at all that there is any real medicinal value.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the sun bear population has fallen by perhaps 30 percent in the last 30 years. Thankfully, there are a number of groups dedicated to the conservation of sun bears and all bear species.