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Facts About Bears

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Brown bear - Ursus arctos

Brown bear - Ursus arctos

Photo © Tom Brakefield / Getty Images.

Bears are a group of carnivores known for their burly build, impressive agility and increasingly threatened conservation status. There are eight species of bears that inhabit a wide range of habitats throughout North and South America, Europe and Asia. Although the bear family includes the largest living land carnivores, many species survive on a diet that consists largely of vegetation.

Here we'll explore facts about bears to help you better understand this group of carnivores.

FACT: There are eight species of bears.

There are eight species of bears alive today that range in size from the large brown bears and polar bears, which can weigh as much as 2200 and 1500 pounds respectively, to the comparatively smaller giant pandas and sun bears, which weigh less than 300 pounds apiece.

American black bears inhabit parts of North America and Mexico. The diet of American black bears consists primarily of plant material such as leaves, buds, shoots, berries and nuts. American black bear subspecies include the cinnamon bear, glacier bear, Mexican black bear, Kermody bear, Louisiana black bear and several others.

Asian black bears are medium-sized bears that inhabit parts of southeast Asia and the Russian Far East. Asian black bears have a patch of yellowish-white fur on their chest and a black body. They resemble American black bears in body shape and behavior. Asian black bears feed on a variety of plant materials including bamboo shoots, leaves, herbs, grasses, fruits and nuts.

Brown bears are the largest of all the bear species and are considered to be the largest living land carnivore. Brown bears are widely distributed, inhabiting a range that includes the northern parts of North America, Europe and Asia. There are numerous subspecies of brown bears including the Carpathian bear, European brown bear, Gobi bear, grizzly bear, Kodiak bear and several others.

Giant pandas are small bears that feed almost exclusively on bamboo shoots and leaves. They have a distinct color pattern, a black body, white face, black ears and black eye spots. Giant pandas are native to the central and southern parts of western China.

Polar bears are the second largest of all bear species. Polar bears inhabit a circumpolar region in the Arctic which stretches into northern Canada and Alaska. Polar bears live on pack ice, along shorelines and swim in open water. They feed on a diet of seals and walrus.

Sloth bears are medium-sized bears that inhabit grasslands, forests and scrublands in southeast Asia. Sloth bears have long, shaggy fur and a white chest mark. They feed on termites which they find using their acute sense of smell.

Spectacled bears are the only bear species that lives in South America. Today, spectacled bears inhabit cloud forests at elevations between 3300 to 8900 feet. Historically, spectacled bears also inhabited coastal deserts and high elevation grasslands, but the encroachment of humans into those habitats has restricted their range.

Sun bears are the smallest species of bear. Sun bears inhabit lowland tropical forest in southeast Asia. They have the shortest fur of all the bear species and are marked with a light, reddish-brown U-shaped patch of fur on their chest.

FACT: The earliest known true bear is Ursavus elemensis, also known as the dawn bear.

The dawn bear, Ursavus elemensis, was a small, dog-sized bear that inhabited subtropical forests throughout Europe during the Miocene. The dawn bear is believed to be the ancestor of all eight living bear species. Scientists believe that about 10 million years ago, Ursavus elemensis gave rise to Protursus simpsoni, a now-extinct genus of bears that gave rise to the modern bear family, Ursus.

FACT: Six of the eight species of bears are classified as vulnerable or threatened with extinction.

The giant panda is the most threatened of all bear species, with only 1600 remaining individuals. Giant pandas are classified as Endangered by the IUCN. The sun bear, the smallest of the bear species, is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, as is the Andean bear, the sloth bear, the Asiatic black bear and the polar bear. Brown bears and black bears are classified as Least Concern by the IUCN and are considered to be outside of immediate risk of extinction at this time.

FACT: The largest of all bear species is the brown bear.

Brown bears can weigh as much as 2200 pounds. The size of brown bears varies between the sexes and among the subspecies. Males are significantly heavier than females and the Kodiak bear, Ursus arctos middendorfi, is considered to be the largest of all the subspecies ob brown bears. Kodiak bears inhabit the Kodiak Archipelago in South-Western Alaska.

FACT: The koala is not a bear, it is a marsupial.

The koala is occasionally referred to as a 'koala bear', a common name it earned due to its slight resemblance to a teddy bear. Despite this common name, the koala is not a bear at all. Instead, it is an arboreal marsupial that lives in Australia.

FACT: Bears in northern regions go into winter sleep. They do not go into true hibernation.

During the winter when bears go into a deep sleep, there body temperature does not drop significantly. For this reason, many scientists do not classify this state as true hibernation but instead refer to it as winter sleep or winter lethargy.

FACT: Polar bears are the most skilled swimmers of all bear species.

Polar bears live in regions that border the Arctic Ocean. They hunt on polar ice floes throughout the winter and swim between ice chunks when needed in pursuit of prey such as seals, fish, and walruses. Polar bears can swim 3-6 miles per hour.

FACT: Bears have plantigrade paws with non-retractile claws.

Bears walk in a manner such that their entire foot makes contact with the ground. This foot configuration is referred to as plantigrade locomotion and is also common in primates (including humans) as well. Other plantigrade animals include kangaroos, mice, raccoons, and hedgehogs. A bear's plantigrade gait can be contrasted with the digitigrade gait foot of a dog (which walks on its digits) and the unguligrade foot of a deer (which walks on the tips of its toes).

FACT: Pinnipeds are the closest living relatives to bears.

Pinnipeds are a group of semi-aquatic marine mammals that include the walrus, seals, sea lions, and fur seals.

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