December 9, 2022

Did you know that there are nine recognized members of the bear family worldwide, but with many subspecies that cannot be covered in this limited space?

They are all assigned to the scientific family Ursidae and can be found all over the world with the exception of Australia. Their size varies from four feet in length and weighing around 70 pounds, but can be up to eight feet in length and more than 1,000 pounds.

These critters, while sticking to their own general territories, can be found in North and South America, Europe and Asia. And bears are usually solitary, with the exception of mother bears with cubs. They all have an exceptionally good sense of smell, relatively poor eyesight, and keen hearing. And they all share non-retractable claws and short tails.

Bears generally have long lives like mammals. All species live an average of about 25 years when left in the wild. In captivity, they can generally live up to 50 years. Personally, “Smokey the Bear” was found and rescued as a cub during a wildfire in New Mexico, and this little male grew up and lived at the National Zoo in Washington, DC for 55 years.

The polar bear

So what are the different species of bears? The polar bear is the largest member of this family, with adult males often weighing in excess of 1,000 pounds. They live “circumpolar” around the Arctic Ocean and are classified as “marine mammals”.

They are also the largest carnivorous animal on earth. Because of their normal nomadic journey, they are rarely observed by most people. Their main food source is seals, but they have also been known to feed on beached whales and other marine mammals.

Females of these snow bears have one to four cubs every two years after reaching sexual maturity in their third year. And the cubs stay with them for two years while the mama bears teach them everything they need to know to survive successfully.

The grizzly bear

Older grizzly bears are usually brown, although their fur may appear tipped with white or gray in adults, giving them their name. Males can grow to around 800 pounds, but females rarely exceed 600.

Their diet consists of almost anything edible such as animal carcasses large and small, berries, nuts, maggots, and fish. Members of this species in parts of Alaska feed heavily on migratory salmon in the late summer/fall months and gain tremendous amounts of fat in just a few months before hibernation.

Despite their impressive size, these bears have been run at up to 30 miles per hour. They require a lot of space, especially in areas with poorer habitat. Their range can range from as little as 100 to 600 or more square miles.

Since being listed as endangered in 1975, grizzly bear populations have increased. Although there are no exact (reliable) population figures, wherever they are found their numbers have increased quite dramatically.

The giant panda

The giant panda is a true member of the bear family. They are best known for their stark black and white fur coats.

Their typical “homeland” is found in temperate forests in the mountains of southwest China. And yes, they feed almost exclusively on bamboo. You have to eat 25 to 85 pounds of this stuff every day to stay at your best body weight.

They use their enlarged wrist bones to act as opposable thumbs. A newborn cub can be about two inches long. But the small size quickly grows to a 200 lb female or 300 lb male. And despite their seemingly large adult size, they are incredibly good tree climbers.

The sun bear

Also known as the “honey bear,” the sun bear is without a doubt one of the funniest creatures in the bear family. It is also the least known and smallest member of the bear family. This is at least partly due to poaching. They are found in dense forests of Southeast Asia.

These critters love honey wherever they find it. They get their name from a bib-shaped white or gold patch on their chest. There are many legends that this sign represents the rising sun. A grown man (and woman) rarely exceeds 200 pounds. And they are nocturnal, only hunting for birds and small mammals at night.

The black bear

The American black bear is a well-known creature in this country and in Canada. They’re common almost everywhere they’re found, so I won’t spend too much time on them here.

Suffice to say, they can be found almost everywhere, from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens to California’s Santa Cruz Valley. They can live in swamps, flat forests, mountains, or just about anywhere given proper food and cover.

The spectacled bear

Andean bears, or spectacled bears, South America’s only species of bear, are usually elusive, shy, and peaceful. They are exceptional climbers and avoid all human contact. Their most recent estimated population estimate is under 12,000 animals.

Unrestricted hunting and habitat loss are the main reasons this unique species is most likely headed for membership of the Endangered Species Act.

The Asiatic black bear

The Asiatic black bear has a broad white patch on its chest. Otherwise you might think you’re back in Pennsylvania when you watch one.

They are about the size of a three year old American black bear. They also sometimes sport a gray snout. And their choice of habitat isn’t all that different either. They mainly live in forested areas, most commonly in hilly and mountainous regions.

They live in the northern regions of their Asian range, just like our native bears. And their diet consists of items such as insects, worms, bee nest, various fruits, small mammals and even carrion. And get this. They’ve been known to occasionally kill local livestock, just like our black bears. I wonder if the Asiatic black bears and our black bears could be closer than kissing cousins.

The brown bear

The brown bear is almost circumpolar. Brown bears are not only found in Alaska, but also in parts of Europe and Asia. For many years they were grouped with grizzlies rather than as a distinct species. Alaskan brown bears are generally larger than grizzly bears, most likely because of their diet rich in fish during the fall months.

Their main habitat is forests and mountains. They are solitary, except of course for sows with young, which stay together for two years before the sows start breeding again.

Even when the bears gather in the summer to greet the hordes of salmon coming inland for their own love fest, these big bears have a strong pecking order. The largest males get the best fishing spots with small protests, and smaller males and females get whatever fishing waters are still available.

Before the fish arrive, brown bears will feed on pretty much anything that might be available. This includes other animals such as rodents or elk or elk or other (smaller) bears as well. They also eat berries, fruits, nuts and other organic matter. In a land of plenty, they rarely go hungry.

Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger’s outdoor columnist. Contact him at [email protected]

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