10 Interesting Facts About Bears

Bears are one of the most popular animals, but how much do you know about them?

brown bear lying down on its side with face resting on top of paw

Paul Souders / Getty Images

Bears are found across the world, from North America to South America and Europe to Asia, and their diversity in range has led to an amazing variety of sizes, habits, and food preferences.

There are eight species of bear: 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. Unfortunately, all of these are vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, mostly due to habitat loss and illegal hunting.

Nevertheless, from the polar bear—the largest land predator on Earth—to the giant panda that spends hours nibbling on bamboo, the bears of the world have many fascinating traits. Learn more about the quirky side of these interesting animals.

1. Pandas Have an Extra Bone Just for Eating

panda sits in forest holding bamboo with one paw open to face camera
Michael Leidel/EyeEm / Getty Images

Pandas are known for their affinity for munching on bamboo. In order to get enough nutrition, pandas will spend upward of 12 hours a day feeding, eating as much as 20 to 40 pounds of plant material each day. In order to more easily feed on the stems and leaves, they have a special anatomical adaptation.

Pandas have an elongated wrist bone on each front paw, with padding on the end. Known as a "sesamoid" bone, this functions a bit like a thumb, offering a greater ability to maneuver bamboo stalks. It is not a true thumb, and the panda can't use it to grasp things, but the evolutionary adaptation provides more stability when feasting on bamboo.

Stephen Jay Gould, author of "The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History," described how pandas "held the stalks of bamboo in their paws and stripped off the leaves by passing the stalks between an apparently flexible thumb and the remaining fingers. This puzzled me." He went on to realize that the "enlarged wrist bone [is a] somewhat clumsy, but quite workable, solution."

2. Sloth Bears Use Their Lips Like a Vacuum

profile of black sloth bear with tan markings and lower lip jutting out
Mark Newman / Getty Images

The sloth bear has specially developed lips just for its eating habits, and the feature is so prominent that it has earned the creature the alternative name of the labiated bear.

In addition to eating fruits and flowers in its native India, the sloth bear 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, creating a kind of 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. In this regard, it's more similar to an anteater than other bears.

Apparently the sound of a sloth bear eating is loud and slurpy, due to the powerful suction created by its lips. It even has special hairs on its nose that can close its nostrils when eating so no insects crawl up.

3. Brown Bears Are the Most Widespread

Native to Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America, the brown bear once roamed around the globe. Its range has shrunk significantly in modern times, due to development and the species becoming locally extinct in certain areas. Still, Bear Conservation states that its population remains relatively stable as it retains the status of being the most widely distributed of all bears.

Now, the brown bear can be found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. The largest populations are in Russia, the United States, and Canada, with other major ones in the Carpathian region of Romania, the Balkans, and Scandinavia. Some subspecies of the brown bear, such as the Gobi bear in Mongolia, are considered very rare.

4. 'Grolar' and 'Pizzly' Bears Are Appearing

tan and white grolar bear hybrid walks in sun next to log
Philippe Clement / Getty Images

As the global climate shifts, brown bears and polar bears are wandering into each others' territory more often, particularly when polar bears lack the ice floes they require for hunting seals. The result is cross-mating and an increased occurrence of hybrid bears that are commonly called "grolar" or "pizzly" bears.

In 2006, a hunter killed what he thought was a polar bear but actually 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.

Interestingly, these bears are fertile, meaning that polar bears and grizzly bears can affect the other species' gene pools. They are usually smaller than a polar bear, but bigger than a grizzly. Their hair and teeth are a blend of both species. Opinions are mixed on whether or not this is a bad thing. Some researchers suggest that it builds resilience into the population, ensuring that bears will fare better in the face of climate change.

5. Black Bears Are Not Always Black

cinnamon-colored black bear with blond cub side by side in field with dandelions
RichardSeeley / Getty Images

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 blond cub. Though the species is called black bear, the animals within it come in a range of colors: black, brown, cinnamon, blond, blue-gray, or even white.

The variation in color has to do with the bears' environment. A lighter color is more common in black bears in the west of the United States, as the lighter shades help them blend in while in open meadows, providing more time to graze and feed, as well as to reduce heat stress. Around half of the Western black bears are shades of brown.

Meanwhile, in the northeast, around 97% of black bears are black in color. This has to do with the melanin in black fur helping to make it more resistant to abrasion in the brushy lower levels of Eastern forests. Sometimes fur bleaches in the sun, resulting in a bear that's lighter colored by the end of the summer compared to the start.

6. White Bears Have Cultural Significance

white spirit bear stands on rocks in river with rushing water
KenCanning / Getty Images

The most famous not-black black bears are part of the Kermode subspecies, found in British Columbia, and named after Frank Kermode, former director of the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria. Between 10-25% of creatures in this subspecies have an all-white or cream-colored coat, which is surprising, considering they are technically black bears. It is the result of a recessive gene, carried by both parents and resulting in their offspring's white coat; however, the cub still has dark eyes and nose, like other black bears.

Beyond its fascinating beauty, the white Kermode bear also carries cultural significance to the First Nations, earning it the nickname of spirit bear. One story told by the Kitasoo/Xaixais Nation tells of Raven (creator of all things) making the animal to remind him of snow and ice as the Ice Age reached its end. In another story, Raven makes an agreement with black bears that throughout time, some of their cubs would be white.

While these bears can be found throughout B.C.'s temperate coastal rainforest, they have thrived on two islands in particular—Princess Royal and Gribbell. There, the largest populations of Kermode bears can be found.

7. Panda Babies Are Shockingly Small

Panda cubs are famous for their cuteness, but there is something more special about them: They're shockingly small. Just 1/900th the size of their mothers, panda cubs are one of the smallest newborn mammals relative to the mothers' size. Usually two cubs are born, but just one survives.

They weigh a mere 3.5 ounces at birth, which is equivalent to a stick of butter. As the Smithsonian Institute explains, "Except for a marsupial, such as a kangaroo or opossum, a giant panda baby is the smallest mammal newborn relative to its mother's size."

Scientists have determined that panda babies are essentially premature, born at 70% of the development one might normally expect from a full gestation period; why pandas give birth earlier than other bear species is unclear. "They're basically undercooked," said Duke University student Peishu Li who coauthored a study on this topic.

It likely has something to do with a process called "delayed implantation," that all bears experience. A fertilized egg floats around the womb for several months before implanting in the wall for development. At that point, other bears gestate for two months before giving birth, while pandas do it only for one month.

8. Polar Bears Are Marine Mammals

large white polar bear swims underwater among rocks and cliffs
spxChrome / Getty Images

Polar bears are a special case among bear species because they depend on the ocean for food and a place to live. As a result, they are the only bear species to be considered a marine mammal; they even fall under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

To survive in their icy habitat, polar bears have a number of fine-tuned features. They have partially webbed forepaws that help them speed through the water at speeds reaching six miles per hour. They use their hind feet as a rudder. Additionally, their layer of blubber and thick coat provide both buoyancy and protection from the cold water, and their nostrils close when underwater. Polar bears can swim continuously for hours as they travel among ice floes in search of seals to hunt and eat.

9. Only 1 Bear Species Lives in the Southern Hemisphere

All of the world's bears live in the Northern Hemisphere, except one: the spectacled bear. This bear is found almost entirely in the Andes Mountains of South America, aptly giving it its other name of Andean bear. It ranges from western Venezuela down to western Bolivia, and sometimes into northwest Argentina, where it seeks out lush, isolated cloud forests as its preferred habitat. These bears are primarily vegetarian and like eating fruit so much that they've been known to climb up into trees and wait days for it to ripen.

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. This species is not only the last remaining bear species in the Southern Hemisphere, but it is also the last remaining relative of short-faced bears.

10. Sun Bears Are (Falsely) Thought to Have Medicinal Properties

black sun bear showing off chest markings, a black circle in tan patch that looks like a sun
MollyNZ / Getty Images

The sun bear is the smallest of the bear species, only about half the size of a black bear, with a unique marking on its chest that resembles the rising sun and gives the bear its memorable name. Each bear has an individualized marking, like a fingerprint. They like to sit high up in trees, resting in a nest in order to avoid human activity. When humans aren't around, they will rest on the ground.

That, however, is not why these bears are sought after. They are often hunted and killed for their paws, gall bladders, and bile products to be used in traditional Chinese medicine. What's more, sun bears are one of the species used in bear bile farms, a cruel practice in which bears are kept caged to extract bile for the medicinal trade. In each of these cases, there is no scientific evidence that these substances hold any medicinal value.

Save the Bears

  • Do not support organizations that are harmful to bears, such as circuses and inadequate zoos, and encourage others to join you.
  • Combat climate change by using renewable energy and reducing your water and food waste.
  • Minimize bird feeders, fruit trees, and berry bushes at your home to prevent human-bear interactions.
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