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Bears are mammals of the family Ursidae. Bears are classified as caniforms, or doglike carnivorans, with the pinnipeds being their closest living relatives. Although there are only eight living species of bear, they are widespread, appearing in a wide variety of habitats throughout the Northern Hemispheremarker and partially in the Southern Hemispheremarker. Bears are found in the continents of North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.

Common characteristics of modern bears include a large body with stocky legs, a long snout, shaggy hair, plantigrade paws with five nonretractile claws, and a short tail. While the polar bear is mostly carnivorous and the giant panda feeds almost entirely on bamboo, the remaining six species are omnivorous, with largely varied diets including both plants and animals.

With the exceptions of courting individuals and mothers with their young, bears are typically solitary animals. They are generally diurnal, but may be active during the night (nocturnal) or twilight (crepuscular), particularly around humans. Bears are aided by an excellent sense of smell, and despite their heavy build and awkward gait, they can run quickly and are adept climbers and swimmers. In autumn some bear species forage large amounts of fermented fruits which affects their behaviour. Bears use shelters such as caves and burrows as their dens, which are occupied by most species during the winter for a long period of sleep similar to hibernation.

Bears have been hunted since prehistoric times for their meat and fur. To this day, they play a prominent role in the arts, mythology, and other cultural aspects of various human societies. In modern times, the bear's existence has been pressured through the encroachment on its habitats and the illegal trade of bears and bear parts, including the Asian bile bear market. The IUCN lists six bear species as vulnerable or endangered, and even least concern species such as the brown bear are at risk of extirpation in certain countries. The poaching and international trade of these most threatened populations is prohibited, but still ongoing.

Evolutionary relationships

The Ursidae family belongs to the order Carnivora and is one of nine families in the suborder Caniformia, or "doglike" carnivorans. Bears' closest living relatives are the pinnipeds, a clade of three families: Odobenidae (the walrus), Otariidae (fur seals and sea lions), and Phocidae (true or earless seals). Bears comprise eight species in three subfamilies: Ailuropodinae (monotypic with the giant panda), Tremarctinae (monotypic with the Spectacled Bear), and Ursinae (containing six species divided into one to three genera, depending upon authority).

The origins of Ursidae can be traced back to the very small and graceful Parictis that had a skull only 7 cm (3 in) long. Parictis first occur in North America in the Late Eocene (ca. 38 million years ago), but this genus did not appear in Eurasia and Africa until the Miocene. The raccoon-sized, dog-like Cephalogale, however, is widely regarded as the most primitive ursid and is ideally suited as a representative basal taxon for the family. Cephalogale first appeared during the middle Oligocene and early Miocene (approximately 20–30 million years ago) in Europe. Cephalogale gave rise to a lineage of early bears of the genus Ursavus. This genus radiated in Asia and ultimately gave rise to the first true bears (genus Ursus) in Europe, 5 million years ago. Even among its primitive species, such as C. minor, it exhibits typical ursid synapomorphic dentition such as posteriorly oriented M2 postprotocrista molar, elongated m2 molars, and a reduction of the premolars. Living members of the ursids are morphologically well defined by their hypocarnivorous (non-strictly meat-eating) dentitions, but fossil ursids include hypercarnivorous (strictly meat-eating) taxa, although they never achieved the extreme hypercarnivory seen in mustelids. Cephalogale was a mesocarnivore (intermediate meat-eater). Other extinct bear genera include Arctodus, Agriarctos, Plionarctos and Indarctos.

It is uncertain whether ursids were in Asia during the late Eocene, although there is some suggestion that a limited immigration from Asia may have produced Parictis in North America due to the major sea level lowstand at ca. 37 Ma, but no Parictis fossils have yet to be found in East Asia. Ursids did, however, become very diversified in Asia later during the Oligocene. Four genera representing two subfamilies (Amphicynodontinae and Hemicyoninae) have been discovered in the Oligocene of Asia: Amphicticeps, Amphicynodon, Pachycynodon, and Cephalogale. Amphicticeps is endemic from Asia and the other three genera are common to both Asia and Europe. This indicates migration of ursids between Asia and Europe during the Oligocene and migration of several taxa from Asia to North America likely occurred later during the late Oligocene or early Miocene. Although Amphicticeps is morphologically closely related to Allocyon, and also to Kolponomos of North America, no single genus of the Ursidae from this time period is known to be common to both Eurasia and North America. Cephalogale, however, do appear in North America in the early Miocene. It is interesting to note that rodents, such as Haplomys and Pseudotheridomys (late Oligocene) and Plesiosminthus and Palaeocastor (early Miocene), are common to both Asia and North America and this indicates that faunal exchange did occur between Asia and North America during the late Oligocene to early Miocene. Ursid migration from Asia to North America would therefore have also been very likely to occur during this time. In the late Neogene three major carnivoran migrations that definitely included ursids are recognized between Eurasia and North America. The first (probably 21–18 Ma) was waves of intermittent dispersals including Amphicynodon, Cephalogale and Ursavus. The second migration occurred about 7–8 Ma and included Agriotherium (probably a hemicyonid – this was unusual among ursoids in that it also colonised sub-Saharan Africa). The third wave took place in the early Pliocene 4 Ma, consisting of Ursus.

The giant panda's taxonomy has long been debated. Its original classification by Armand David in 1869 was within the bear genus Ursus, but in 1870 it was reclassified by Alphonse Milne-Edwards to the raccoon family. In recent studies, the majority of DNA analyses suggest that the giant panda has a much closer relationship to other bears and should be considered a member of the family Ursidae. The status of the red panda remains uncertain, but many experts, including Wilson and Reeder, classify it as a member of the bear family. Others place it with the raccoons in Procyonidae or in its own family, the Ailuridae. Multiple similarities between the two pandas, including the presence of false thumbs, are thought to represent convergent evolution for feeding primarily on bamboo.

There is also evidence that, unlike their neighbors elsewhere, the brown bears of Alaska's ABC islands are more closely related to polar bears than they are to other brown bears in the world. Researchers Gerald Shields and Sandra Talbot of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology studied the DNA of several samples of the species and found that their DNA is different from that of other brown bears. The researchers discovered that their DNA was unique compared to brown bears anywhere else in the world. The discovery has shown that while all other brown bears share a brown bear as their closest relative, those of Alaska's ABC Islands differ and share their closest relation with the polar bear. There is also supposed to be a very rare large bear in China called the blue bear, which presumably is a type of black bear. This animal has never been photographed.

Koalas are often referred to as bears due to their appearance; they are not bears, however, but marsupials.


The genera Melursus and Helarctos are sometimes also included in Ursus. The Asiatic black bear and the polar bear used to be placed in their own genera, Selenarctos and Thalarctos which are now placed at subgenus rank.

A number of hybrids have been bred between American black, brown, and polar bears (see Ursid hybrids).



Bears are generally bulky and robust animals with relatively short legs. Bears are sexually dimorphic with regard to size, with the males being larger. Larger species tend to show increased levels of sexual dimorphism in comparison to smaller species, and where a species varies in size across its distribution individuals from larger sized areas tend also to vary more. Bears are the most massive terrestrial members of the order Carnivora, with some Polar Bears and Brown Bears weighing over 750 kg. As to which species is the largest may depend on whether the assessment is based on which species has the largest individuals (brown bears) or on the largest average size (polar bears). The smallest bears are the Sun Bears of Asia, which weigh an average of 65 kg for the males and 45 kg for the females.

Unlike other land carnivorans, bears are plantigrade. They distribute their weight toward the hind feet which makes then look lumbering when they walk. They are still quite fast with the brown bear reaching 30 mph although they are still slower than felines and canine. Bears can stand on their hind feet and sit up straight with remarkable balance. Bears have non-retractable claws which are used for digging, climbing, tearing and catching prey. Their ears are rounded.

Bears have an excellent sense of smell, a better sense of smell in fact that the dogs (Canidae), or possibly any mammal. This sense of smell is used for signalling between bears (either to warn off rivals or detect mates) and for finding food. Smell is the principal sense used by bears to find most of their diet.


Unlike most other members of the Carnivora, bears have relatively undeveloped carnassial teeth, and their teeth are adapted for a diet that includes a significant amount of vegetable matter. The canine teeth are large, and the molar teeth flat and crushing. There is considerable variation in dental formula even within a given species. It has been suggested that this indicates bears are still in the process of evolving from a carnivorous to a predominantly herbivorous diet. Polar bears appear to have secondarily re-evolved fully functional carnassials, as their diet has switched back towards carnivory. The dental formula for living bears is:

Distribution and habitat

The bears are mostly found in the northern hemisphere, with a single species, the Andean Bear, occurring in South America. The Atlas Bear, a subspecies of the Brown Bear, was the only bear native to Africa. It was distributed in North Africa from Morocco to Libya, but has been extinct since around the 1870s. All the other species are found in North America, Asia and Europe. The most widespread species is the Brown Bear, which occurs from Western Europe eastwards through Asia to the western areas of North America. The American Black Bear is restricted to North America, and the Polar bear is restricted to the Arctic Sea. All the remaining species are Asian.

With the exception of the Polar Bear the bears are mostly forest species. Some species, particularly the Brown Bear, may inhabit or seasonally use other areas such as alpine scrub or tundra.


While many people think that bears are nocturnal, they are in fact generally diurnal, active for the most part during the day. The belief that they are nocturnal apparently comes from the habits of bears that live near humans which engage in some activities, such as raiding trash cans or crops, are nocturnal in order to avoid humans. The sloth bear of Asia is the most nocturnal of the bears, but this varies by individual and females with cubs are often diurnal in order to avoid competition with males and nocturnal predators. Bears are overwhelming solitary and are considered to be the most asocial of all the Carnivora. Liaisons between breeding bears are brief, and the only times bears are encountered in small groups are mothers with young or occasional seasonal bounties of rich food (such as salmon runs).


Bears produce a variety of vocalizations such as:

  • Moaning: produced mostly as mild warnings to potential threats or in fear.
  • Barking: produced during times of alarm, excitement or to give away the animal's position.
  • Huffing: made during courtship or between mother and cubs to warn of danger.
  • Growling: produced as strong warnings to potential threats or in anger.
  • Roaring: used much for the same reasons as growls and also to proclaim territory and for intimidation. Made by all bears expect for the sun bear.

Diet and interspecific interactions

Their carnivorous reputation non-withstanding, most bears have adopted a diet of more plant than animal matter and are completely opportunistic omnivores. Some bears will climb trees in order to obtain mast (edible vegatative or reproductive parts such as acorns), smaller species which are more able to climb include a greater amount of this in their diet. Such masts can be very important to the diet of these species, and mast failures may result in long range movements by bears looking for alternate sources of food. One exception is the Polar Bear, which has adopted a diet mainly of marine mammals to survive in the Arctic. The other exception is the Giant Panda which has adopted a diet mainly of bamboo. Stable isotope analysis of the extinct Giant Short-faced Bear (Arctodus simus) shows that it was also an exclusive meat eater, probably a scavenger. The Sloth Bear, though not as specialized as the previous two species, has lost several front teeth usually seen in bears and developed a long, suctioning tongue in order to feed on the ants, termites and other burrowing insects that they favour. At certain times of the year these insects can make up 90% of their diet. All bears will feed on any food source that becomes available, and the nature of that varies seasonally. A study of Asiatic Black Bears in Taiwanmarker found that they would consume large numbers of acorns when they were most common, and switch to ungulates in other times of the year.

When taking warm-blooded animals, bears will typically take small or young animals, as they are easier to catch. Although (besides Polar Bears) both species of black bear and the Brown Bear can sometimes take large prey, such as ungulates. Often, bears will feed on other large animals when they encounter a carcass, whether or not the carcass is claimed by or is the kill of another predator. This competition is the main source of interspecies conflict. Bears are typically the apex predators in their range due to their size and power, and can defend a carcass against nearly all comers. Mother bears also can usually defend their cubs against other predators. The Tiger is the only known predator known to regularly prey on adult bears, including Sloth Bears, Asiatic Black Bears, Giant Pandas, Sun Bears and small Brown Bears.


The age at which bears reach sexual maturity is highly variable, both between and within species. Sexual maturity is dependent on body condition, which is in turn dependent upon the food supply available to the growing individual. In the females of smaller species may have young in as little as two years, whereas the larger species may not rear young until they are four or even nine years old. First breeding may be even later in males, where competition for mates may leave younger males without access to females.

The bear's courtship period is very brief. Bears in northern climates reproduce seasonally, usually after a period of inactivity similar to hibernation, although tropical species breed all year round. Cubs are born toothless, blind, and bald. The cubs of brown bears, usually born in litters of 1–3, will typically stay with the mother for two full seasons. They feed on their mother's milk through the duration of their relationship with their mother, although as the cubs continue to grow, nursing becomes less frequent and learn to begin hunting with the mother. They will remain with the mother for approximately three years, until she enters the next cycle of estrus and drives the cubs off. Bears will reach sexual maturity in five to seven years. Male bears, especially Polar and Brown Bears, will kill and sometimes devour cubs born to another father in order to induce a female to breed again. Female bears are often successful in driving off males in protection of their cubs, despite being rather smaller.

Winter dormancy

Many bears of northern regions are assumed to hibernate in the winter. While many bear species do go into a physiological state called hibernation or winter sleep, it is not true hibernation. In true hibernators, body temperatures drop to near ambient and heart rate slows drastically, but the animals periodically rouse themselves to urinate or defecate and to eat from stored food. The body temperature of bears, on the other hand, drops only a few degrees from normal and heart rate slows only slightly. They normally do not wake during this "hibernation", and therefore do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate the entire period. Higher body heat and being easily roused may be adaptations, because females give birth to their cubs during this winter sleep. It can therefore be considered a more efficient form of hibernation because they need not awake through the entire period, but they are more quickly and easily awakened at the end of their hibernation. They have to stay in a den for the whole hibernation.

Relationship with humans

Polar bear at Wapusk National Park, Canada
Some species, such as the polar bear, American black bear, Sloth Bear and the brown bear, are dangerous to humans, especially in areas where they have become used to people. On the west coast of Canadamarker, the American black bear has become an integral part of the silviculture industries, specifically treeplanting. The bears are coaxed into areas of harvested forest to "flush out" the other wildlife, i.e. moose, which are a far greater threat to planters. All bears are physically powerful and are likely capable of fatally attacking a person, but they, for the most part, are shy, easily frightened and will avoid humans. Injuries caused by bears are rare, but are often widely reported. The danger that bears pose is often vastly exaggerated, in part by the human imagination. However, when a mother feels her cubs are threatened, she will behave ferociously. It is recommended to give all bears a wide berth because they are behaviorally unpredictable.

Bears may also come into conflict with humans where they raid crops or attack livestock. These problems may be the work of only a few bears but create a climate of conflict as farmers and ranchers may perceive all losses as due to bears and advocate the preventative removal of all bears. Mitigation methods may be used to reduce bear damage to crops, and reduce local antipathy towards bears.

Laws have been passed in many areas of the world to protect bears from hunters habitat destruction. Public perception of bears is often very positive, as people identify with bears due to their omnivorous diet, ability to stand on two legs, and symbolic importance, and there is widespread support for bear protection, at least in more affluent societies. In more rural and poorer regions attitudes may be more shaped by the dangers posed by bears and the economic costs that they incurr to farmers and ranchers. Some populated areas with bear populations have also outlawed the feeding of bears, including allowing them access to garbage or other food waste. Bears in captivity have been trained to dance, box, or ride bicycles; however, this use of the animals became controversial in the late 20th century. Bears were kept for baiting in Europe at least since the 16th century.

Bears as food and medicine

Many people enjoy hunting bears and eating them. Their meat is dark and stringy, like a tough cut of beef. In Cantonese cuisine, bear paws are considered a delicacy. The peoples of China, Japan, and Korea use bears' body parts and secretions (notably their gallbladders and bile) as part of traditional Chinese medicine. It is believed more than 12,000 bile bears are kept on farms, farmed for their bile, in China, Vietnam and South Korea. Bear meat must be cooked thoroughly as it can often be infected with trichinellosis.



English bear belongs to a family of names for the bear in Germanic languages, in origin from an adjective meaning "brown".In Scandinavia the word for bear is björn (or bjørn), and is a relatively common given name for males. The use of this name is ancient and has been found mentioned in several runestone inscriptions. In Germanic culture, the bear was a symbol of the warrior, as evident from the Old English term beorn which can take the meaning of both "bear" and "warrior".

The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European name of the bear is *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, whence Sanskrit r̥kṣa, Avestan arša, Greek ἄρκτος, Latin ursus, Welsh arth (whence perhaps the given name "Arthur"). Also compared is Hittite ḫartagga-, the name of a monster or predator.In the binomial name of the brown bear, Ursus arctos, Linné simply combined the Latin and Greek names.The female first name "Ursula", originally derived from a Christian saint's name and common in English- and German-speaking countries, means "little she-bear" (dimunitive of Latin ursa). In Switzerland the male first name "Urs" is especially popular.

In Russian and other Slavic languages, the word for bear, "Medved" (медведь), and variants or derivatives such as Medvedev are common surnames.

The Irish family name "McMahon" means "Son of Bear" in Irish.

In East European Jewish communities, the name "Ber" (בער) — Yiddish cognate of "Bear" — has been attested as a common male first name, at least since the 18th century, and was among others the name of several prominent Rabbis. The Yiddish "Ber" is still in use among Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel, the US and other countries.

With the transition from Yiddish to Hebrew under the influence of Zionism, the Hebrew word for "bear", "Dov" (דב), was taken up in contemporary Israelmarker and is at present among the commonly used male first names in that country.

"Ten Bears" (Paruasemana) was the name of a well-known 19th Century chieftain among the Comanche. Also among other Native American tribes, bear-related names are attested.

Myth and legend

Some evidence has been brought to light on prehistoric bear worship, see Arctic, Arcturus, Great Bear, Berserker, Kalevala. Anthropologists such as Joseph Campbell have regarded this as a common feature in most of the fishing and hunting-tribes. The prehistoric Finns, along with most Finno-Ugric peoples, considered the bear as the spirit of one's forefathers. This is why the bear (karhu) was a greatly respected animal, with several euphemistic names (such as otso, mesikämmen and kontio). The bear is the national animal of Finlandmarker.

This kind of attitude is reflected in the traditional Russianmarker fairy tale "Morozko", whose arrogant protagonist Ivan tries to kill a mother bear and her cubs — and is punished and humbled by having his own head turned magically into a bear's head and being subsequently shunned by human society.

"The Brown Bear of Norway" is a Scottishmarker fairy tale telling the adventures of a girl who married a prince magically turned into a bear, and who managed to get him back into a human form by the force of her love and after many trials and difficulties.

There has been evidence about early bear worship in China and among the Ainu culture as well (see Iomante). Korean people in their mythology identify the bear as their ancestor and symbolic animal. According to the Korean legend, a god imposed a difficult test on a she-bear, and when she passed it the god turned her into a woman and married her.

In addition, the Proto-Indo-European word for bear, *h₂ŕ̥tḱos (ancestral to the Greek arktos, Latin ursus, Welsh arth (cf. Arthur), Albanian ari, Armenian arj, Sanskrit ṛkṣa, Hittite ḫartagga) seems to have been subject to taboo deformation or replacement in some languages (as was the word for wolf, wlkwos), resulting in the use of numerous unrelated words with meanings like "brown one" (English bruin) and "honey-eater" (Slavic medved). Thus some Indo-European language groups do not share the same PIE root. The theory of the bear taboo is taught to almost all beginning students of Indo-European and historical linguistics; the putative original PIE word for bear is itself descriptive, because a cognate word in Sanskrit is rakṣas, meaning "harm, injury".

Legends of saints taming bears are common in the Alpine zone. In the arms of the bishopric of Freisingmarker (see illustration) the bear is the dangerous totem animal tamed by St. Corbinian and made to carry his civilised baggage over the mountains.A bear also features prominently in the legend of St. Romedius, who is also said to have tamed one of these animals and had the same bear carry him from his hermitage in the mountains to the city of Trentomarker.
Similar stories are told of Saint Gall and Saint Columbanus.This recurrent motif was used by the Church as a symbol of the victory of Christianity over Paganism, represented by the fiery.

[[Image:The Three Bears - Project Gutenberg eText 17034.jpg|thumb|100px|"The Three Bears", Arthur Rackham's illustration to English Fairy Tales, byFlora Annie Steel]]Imaginary bears are a popular feature of many children's stories including Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Berenstein Bears, and Winnie the Pooh.

The constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor represent bears.

Symbolic use

The Russian bear is a common National personification for Russiamarker (as well as the Soviet Unionmarker) and even Germany. The brown bear is Finlandmarker's national animal.

In the United Statesmarker, the black bear is the state animal of Louisianamarker, New Mexicomarker, and West Virginiamarker; the grizzly bear is the state animal of both Montanamarker and Californiamarker.

Bears appear in the canting arms of Bernemarker and Berlinmarker.

Also, "bear", "bruin", or specific types of bears are popular nicknames or mascots, e.g. for sports teams (Chicago Bears, California Golden Bears, Boston Bruins); and a bear cub called Misha was mascot of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscowmarker, USSRmarker.
Smokey Bear

Smokey Bear has become a part of Americanmarker culture since his introduction in 1944. Known to almost all Americans, he and his message, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires" (updated in 2001 to "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires") has been a symbol of preserving woodlands. Smokey wears a hat similar to one worn by many U.S. state police officers, giving rise to the CB slang "bear" or "Smokey" for the highway patrol.

Figures of speech

The physical attributes and behaviours of bears are commonly used in figures of speech in English.
  • In the stock market, a bear market is a period of declining prices. Pessimistic forecasting or negative activity is said to be bearish (due to the stereotypical posture of bears looking downwards), and one who expresses bearish sentiment is a bear. Its opposite is a bull market, and bullish sentiment from bulls.
  • In gay slang, the term "bear" refers to male individuals who possess physical attributes much like a bear, such as a heavy build, abundant body hair, and commonly facial hair.
  • A bear hug is typically a tight hug that involves wrapping one's arms around another person, often leaving that person's arms immobile. It was used in the Ronald Reagan political ad "Bear in the woods."
  • Bear tracking - in the old Western states of the U.S.marker and to this day in the former Dakota Territory, the expression, "You ain't just a bear trackin'.", is used to mean "You ain't lying" or "That's for sure" or "You're not just blowing smoke". This expression evolved as an outgrowth of the experience pioneer hunters and mountainmen had when tracking bear. Bears often lay down false tracks and are notorious for doubling back on anything tracking them. If you are not following bear tracks, you are not following false trails or leads in your thoughts, words or deeds.
  • In Korean culture a person is referred to as being "like a bear" when they are stubborn or not sensitive to what is happening around their surroundings. Used as a phrase to call a person "stubborn bear."
  • The Bible compares King David's "bitter warriors", who fight with such fury that they could overcome many times their number of opponents, with "a bear robbed of her whelps in the field" (2 Book of Samuel, 17, 8 - see [368]). The term "a bereaved bear" (דב שכול), derived from this Biblical source, is still used in the literary Hebrew of contemporary Israelmarker.

Teddy bears

Around the world, many children have stuffed toys in the form of bears.

See also


  1. Lindburg, Donald G. (2004). Giant Pandas: Biology and Conservation, pp. 7–9. University of California Press
  2. Olaf R. P. Bininda-Emonds. "Phylogenetic Position of the Giant Panda". In Lindburg, Donald G. (2004) Giant Pandas: Biology and Conservation, pp. 11–35. University of California Press
  3. The Brown Bear: Father of the Polar Bear?, Alaska Science Forum
  4. Pokorny [1]
  6. Pokorny [2]
  7. The Brown One, The Honey Eater, The Shaggy Coat, The Destroyer
  8. Michel Pastoreau (2007)L'ours. Historie d'un roi déchu
  9. Ad Council : Forest Fire Prevention - Smokey Bear (1944–Present)

Further reading

  • Bears of the World, Terry Domico, Photographs by Terry Domico and Mark Newman, Facts on File, Inc, 1988, hardcover, ISBN 0-8160-1536-8
  • The Bear by William Faulkner
  • Brunner, Bernd: Bears — A Brief History. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007

External links

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