Added December 13 2000. Last updated 11 January 2001 with thumbnail images.

A Quick Guide to



The bear is a familiar figure to most of us, in folklore, fairy tale or tribal religion if not in actual physical closeness. Mention the word bear to most people and a couple of conflicting images spring to mind: that of the childhood teddy, cuddly and friendly, and that of the angered grizzly or polar bear that can kill an adult human.

Although bears are mainly thought of in connection with North America and Russia, one species lives in the Andes and others live in Asia. The Polar bear occupies the Arctic regions and hence can be found in both Canadian and Russian territory. There are none in Africa or Australia. They were once quite common in Europe, but deforestation and human persecution caused their decline. The giant panda is actually a member of the bear family, but the red panda (confusingly) is not.

Bears are intelligent mammals that have a long interwoven history with the human race. Thankfully the days when chaining bears up to dance was respectabel are now behind us, but there is still some controversy over how much bears should be allowed to assimilate into the company of humans, for example in circuses or zoos. There is also the related problem that bears (like some other animals) learn to take advantage of human civilisation, notably in the taking of food or leftovers from humans visiting their areas. Fortunately we are now starting to come to grips with this problem, hopefully to the benefit of both parties.

The following is a guide to the eight members of this fascinating mammal family.

KEY: As this is a large page we have placed a navigation link in each family box. Click on "I" to go back up to the index (Quick Links). In the size columns, the first size given is that of the bear's full length, the second (in brackets) is the height of the bear at the shoulder when standing.

Quick Links
Ailuropoda melanoleuca, Giant Panda Tremarctos ornatus, Spectacled Bear Ursus arctos, Brown Bear
Ursus americanus, Black Bear Ursus thibetanus, Asiatic Black Bear Ursus ursinus, Sloth Bear
Ursus malayanus, Sun Bear Ursus maritimus, Polar Bear  

Species Common Name Size Distribution Notes

Ailuropoda melanoleuca

Giant Panda 5-6'
Isolated pockets in China The Giant Panda probably needs no introduction as a creature, having been made the symbol of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, although perhaps fewer people realise that it is a bear. It belongs to its own subfamily, the Ailuropodinae, and was the first modern bear to arise, 18-22 million years ago. Ironically, it is now one of the rarest. The reasons for its plight are partly human (the usual culprits of poaching, habitat loss and human disturbance) but also due to its very low rate of reproduction: females come into oestrus and are receptive to breeding for a period of 5 days per year. No more than three cubs are born (normally one or two), and usually only one survives into adulthood. Even in favourable captive conditions breeding success has evaded many zoological institutions. The Chinese have made considerable efforts to protect the panda, and in fact the penalty for killing one is death. I

Tremarctos ornatus

Spectacled Bear 5-6'
Venezuela, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador as far as the Andes: poss. E Panama and N Argentina The Spectacled Bear is now the only bear found in South America, and lives in mountainous areas. It belongs to its own subfamily, the Tremarctinae. Its common name derives from the light-coloured circular markings around its eyes and across its muzzle. In some individuals these markings may extend down the throat and chest. Mating takes place in April to June (winter in the southern hemisphere) and up to three cubs are born between November and February. This bear is threatened by hunting and also by population fragmentation across its range, leading to reproductive isolation. I

Ursus arctos

Brown Bear 9' (5') NW Canada/USA, N Eurasia from Japan to the Baltic: isolated pockets in Rockies as far south as California, Spain, Italy, Balkans and E Europe, Asia Minor, China This is the most widespread of bears and perhaps the one most people think of when they think of bears. Found in many isolated pockets across three continents, there are a number of subspecies of Ursus arctos. The brown bear is in fact not always brown: though usually so, it may instead be any shade between light cream and black (Ward & Kynaston). It can be distinguished from the black bear Ursus americanus by its more concave face and a hump over the shoulders which the black bear lacks. Unlike the black bear, the brown bear cannot climb trees. They are more aggressive than the blacks. The Bajan Bear, U. a. californicus, became extinct in the 1920s. I
U. a. arctos (Eurasian) Brown Bear Eurasia
U. a. beringianus Siberian Bear Siberia
U. a. horribilis "Grizzly" N America
U. a. isabellinus Red Bear N India, Himalayas
U. a. manchuricus Manchurian Bear Manchuria
U. a. middendorffi Kodiak Bear Kodiak, Afognak and Shuyak islands
U. a. nelsoni Mexican Bear Eurasia
U. a. pruinosus Horse Bear Tibet, Szechuan, W China
U. a. yesoensis Hokkaido Bear Japan

Ursus americanus

Black Bear

Sub-Arctic Canada, NW USA, isolated pockets in E USA This North American species is usually black but often varies in colour. There are a large number of subspecies, the exact validity of which are subject to dispute: some are listed below. Males are somewhat heavier than females. They are essentially solitary creatures, males and females only coming together in June-July to breed. 2-3, but sometimes up to 5 cubs, are born after a pregnancy of about 220 days. Lifespan is about 32 years. Although those bears in isolated pockets may be endangered through reproductive isolation, generally this bear is not considered in danger. I
U. a. altifrontalis N British Columbia, Yukon
U. a. vancouveri Vancouver Island
U. a. emmansii Blue Bear,
Glacier Bear
N British Columbia, Yukon
U. a. cinnamomum Cinammon Bear SW Canada, W USA
U. a. hamiltoni Newfoundland Bear Newfoundland
U. a. floridanus Floridan Bear Florida
U. a. carlottae Black Bear Queen Charlotte Islands Large subspecies
U. a. kermodei Kermode Bear Gribble Island, coastal British Columbia There is a distinct pure white colour phase in about 10% of these bears (Ward & Kynaston).
U. a. luteolus East Texan Bear Texas Very rare, possibly extinct: formerly range included Mississippi

Ursus thibetanus

Asiatic Black Bear 4-6' Asia as far west as Afghanistan through to Indochina, China, Taiwan and Japan Distinguishable from the otherwise similar Sloth Bear by a white chevron across the chest and up to the shoulders. I

Ursus ursinus

Sloth Bear 5-6'
India and Sri Lanka, poss. Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan A small black species with shaggy coat which may be flecked with brown and grey hairs. Other distinguishing features are the grey face and muzzle and a lightly coloured U-or Y-shaped patch on the chest. Males are considerably heavier than females. The mating season is May-July, although Ward & Kynaston suggeset that the actual period of receptivity of a female is quite brief. Pregnancy lasts 6-7 months: 1-2 cubs (occasionally 3) are born. This species has a reputation for aggression which, together with its purported destruction of crops, led to it being hunted throughout its range. Today it is endangered through habitat loss. I

Ursus malayanus

Sun bear 4-5'
Malaysia, Borneo, Sumatra, Myanmar, Thailand, Indo-China, poss. China (Yunnan) This is the smallest species of bear, distinguishable by a short black coat with a light patch varying in shape on the chest and a grey muzzle. Males are not much heavier than females. There is not a great deal known about this bear's natural history, including its reproduction, although paradoxically many attempt to keep them as pets, an effort that is often doomed to failure due to the bears' behaviour getting wilder with age. The Sun Bear's natural habitat is the dense forest found over much of its range, although deforestation is now a threat. Females give birth to one or two young: they may be capable of reproduction at any time of year (Ward & Kynaston). I

Ursus maritimus

Polar bear 8' (S) Arctic circle The polar bear is the largest species of bear, weighing over half a ton and in exceptional individuals almost double that. It is also the most carnivorous member of the family, its usual diet comprising seals and possibly walrus, beluga and narwhals. Their lives are dictated to a high degree by the seasons: they move with the pack ice, advancing or retreating with it. Population density is low and the bears very solitary: a female will keep her cubs (usually two but sometimes up to four) with her for months if not a couple of years, but otherwise they are essentially loners. In fact a male encountering a female with cubs may try to kill the cubs in order to bring the female into receptivity for mating. During the harshest depths of the Arctic winter Ursus maritimus spend a few weeks in a burrow in the snow: at the other extreme, in summer they may be found on snowless land near human settlements, when they tend eat more vegetation such as berries. Apart from its recognisable thick white fur, the polar bear retains heat thanks to its thick fat: in fact an individual bear is more in danger of overheating than cold. Ursus maritimus generally avoids human contact, but if cornered or with cubs can be dangerous. The hunting of these animals is now closely regulated. Natural lifespan is about 25 years. I


Bears of the World, Paul Ward and Suzanne Kynaston, Blandford 1995. A very comprehensive guide to this order, covering not only their evolution, classification and natural history but also their relationship with humans, their role in tribal mythology and popular legend, and conservation efforts. Much of the information in this quick guide is owed to this book. Recommended.

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