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All Things Bear
Information and pictures on Bears.
Educational, Zoological, and Classification info.



Bears (family Ursidae) are large mammals in the order Carnivora. 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 Hemisphere and partially in the Southern Hemisphere.

Common characteristics of modern bears include a large body with stocky legs, a long snout, shaggy hair, 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 sometimes Bears diurnal, but are usually active during the night (nocturnal) or twilight (crepuscular). Bears are aided by an excellent sense of smell, and despite their heavy build and awkward gait, they can run quickly and be adept climbers and swimmers. 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, bears have been exploited through the encroachment of their 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.

Modern English "bear" derives from Old English "bera", which itself derives from Proto-Germanic "*beron" meaning "the brown one". (Compare Scandinavian "björn", Dutch "beer", Standard German "Bär" all meaning "bear").

Both Greek ("arktos") and Latin ("ursus") have retained the Proto-Indo-European root word for "bear" ("*rtko") but it was ritually replaced in the northern branches of the Indo-European languages Bears (The Germanic, Baltic, Celtic and Slavic branches) because of the hunters' taboo on the names of wild animals. For example the Irish word for "bear" translated means "the good calf", in Welsh it translates as "honey-pig", in Lithuanian it means "the licker" and Russian literally means "honey-eater". In Sanskrit the bear is called rkshas.

In English, the adjective "ursine" is used to describe things of a bear-like nature, while the collective noun for a group of them is a sleuth.

Physical attributes
Common characteristics of bears include a short tail, acute senses of smell and hearing, a snubbed nose, five non-retractable claws per paw, and long, dense, shaggy fur.

Bears have large bodies and powerful limbs. They are capable of standing up on their hind legs. They have broad paws, long snouts, and round ears. Their teeth are bared for defense and used as tools, depending on the diet of the bear. Their claws are used for ripping, digging, and catching. Bears are generally more robust and stockier than other land carnivorans.

Polar bears are the longest type, and in fact one of the largest extant carnivores, though brown bears are the heaviest. Sun bears are the smallest, only the size of a large dog.

Bears live in a variety of habitats from the tropics to the Arctic and from forests to snowfields. They are mainly omnivorous, although some have a more specialized diet, such as polar bears who mainly consume fish and marine mammalia. They eat lichens, roots, nuts, and berries. They can also go to a river or other body of water to capture fish. Bears will commonly travel far for food. Hunting times are usually in the dusk or the dawn except when humans are nearby.

Some of the larger species, such as the polar bear and the grizzly bear, are dangerous to humans, especially in areas where they have become used to people. For the most part, bears are shy and are easily frightened of humans. They will, however, defend their cubs ferociously if a situation calls for it.

Reproductive behavior
The bear's courtship period is very brief. Bears reproduce seasonally, usually after a period of inactivity similar to hibernation. Cubs are born toothless, blind, and bald. The cubs of brown bears,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. Bears are generally solitary creatures and will not stay close together for long periods of time. Exceptions have been regularly observed; siblings recently on their own and sub-adult bears of similar age and status will spend a significant amount of time in informal social groups.

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.

Laws have been passed in many areas of the world to protect bears from hunters or habitat destruction. 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. In cartoons, circus bears are frequently depicted riding unicycles.

The brown bear is Finland's national animal. In the United States, the black bear is the state animal of Louisiana, New Mexico, and West Virginia; the grizzly bear is the state animal of both Montana and California.

The constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor represent bears.

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.


  • Family Ursidae
    • Subfamily Ailuropodinae
      • Giant Panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca
      • Dwarf Panda, Ailuropoda minor (extinct)
    • Subfamily Ailuridae
      • Lesser Panda, Ailurus fulgens
      • Styans Red Panda, Ailurus fulgens styani
      • Western Red Panda, Ailurus fulgens fulgens
    • Subfamily Agriotherinae
      • Agriotherium (extinct)
        • Agriotherium inexpectans (extinct)
        • Agriotherium sivalensis (extinct)
        • Agriotherium roblesi (extinct)
        • Agriotherium africanum (extinct)
    • Subfamily Tremarctinae
      • Spectacled Bear, Tremarctos ornatus
      • Florida Cave Bear, Tremarctos floridanus (extinct)
      • Giant Short-Faced Bear, Arctodus simus (extinct)
      • Short-Faced Bear, Arctodus pristinus (extinct)
      • Brazilian Short-Faced Bear, Arctotherium brasilense (extinct)
      • Argentine Short-Faced Bear, Arctotherium latidens (extinct)
    • Subfamily Ursinae
      • Brown Bear, Ursus (Ursus) arctos
        • Subspecies Syrian (Brown) Bear Ursus arctos syriacus
        • Subspecies Grizzly Bear, Ursus arctos horribilis
        • Subspecies Kodiak Bear, Ursus arctos middendorffi
        • Subspecies Himalayan Brown Bear, Ursus arctos isabellinus
        • Subspecies Bergman's Bear, Ursus arctos piscator (extinct?)
        • Atlas Bear, Ursus arctos crowtheri (extinct)
      • American Black Bear, Ursus (Ursus) americanus
        • Subspecies Cinnamon Bear, Ursus americanus cinnamomum
        • Subspecies Kermode Bear, Ursus americanus kermodie
      • Polar Bear, Ursus (Thalarctos) maritimus
      • Asiatic Black Bear, Ursus (Selenarctos) thibetanus
        • Formosan Black Bear, Ursus thibetanus formosanus
        • Ursus thibetanus gedrosianus
        • Ursus thibetanus japonica
        • Ursus thibetanus laniger
        • Ursus thibetanus mupinensis
        • Ursus thibetanus thibetanus
        • Ursus thibetanus ussuricu
      • Sloth Bear, Melursus ursinus
        • Subspecies Sri Lankan Sloth Bear Melursus ursinus inornatus
        • Subspecies Indian Sloth Bear Melursus ursinus ursinus
      • Sun Bear, Helarctos malayanus
        • Subspecies Borneo Sun Bear Helarctos malayanus euryspilus
      • Auvergne Bear, Ursus minimus (extinct)
      • Etruscan Bear, Ursus etruscus (extinct)
      • European Cave Bear, Ursus spelaeus (extinct)
      • MacFarlane's Bear, Ursus (Vetularctos) inopinatus (cryptid; if a good species, extinct)

Kodiak Brown Bear

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Caniformia
Superfamily: Ursoidea
Family: Ursidae
Ursavus           "true bear"
Agriarctos            (extinct)
Amphicticeps      (extinct)
Amphicynodon   (extinct)
Arctodus              (extinct)
Cephalogale       (extinct)
Indarctos              (extinct)
Parictis                 (extinct)
Plionarctos          (extinct)

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.

Evolutionary relationships
Phylogeny of extant bears. Ursinae is represented as a polytomy, including a well-supported grouping of the brown and polar bears. MtDNA testing suggests the sloth bear as most basal within its subfamily, but the remaining hierarchy is uncertain.

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 usually divided into three genera).

The origins of Ursidae can be traced back to the very small and graceful Parictis that had a skull only 7 cm 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 molars, 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 low stand 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 Bears 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 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.[8] Three major carnivoran migrations between Eurasia and North America are recognized in the late Neogene that definitely included ursids. The first around 20 Ma (probably 21–18 Ma) were waves of intermittent dispersals that included Amphicynodon, Cephalogale and Ursavus. The second migration occurred at about 7–8 Ma and included Agriotherium. And the last wave took place in the early Pliocene 4 Ma with 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. The many similarities between the two pandas 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.


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