• How many species of bears are there?  
  • In which regions has each species lived?
  • What’s the difference between brown and grizzly bears?
  • How do you distinguish black bears from brown bears?
  • Where in North America do black, brown and polar bears live?        
  • Are polar bears the only kind of white bear?
  • What are the coat colors for each species?
  • How do you distinguish a bear’s sex?
  • How do you estimate a bear’s age or maturity?
  • How do you distinguish one bear from another?
There are currently 8 species of bears living in the world:  grizzly/brown bear, North American black bear, Eurasian black bear, polar
bear, sun bear, sloth bear, giant panda bear and spectacled bear.
 Click here for images of each species:

Extinct species include the pygmy panda, Florida spectacled bear, short-faced bears and cave bear.
The skeleton of the
pygmy panda is very similar to that of the giant panda.  Whether it is a genetically distinct species, or merely a
poorly nourished race, is currently unknown.

There were once several species of
short-faced bears, at least one more species of spectacled bear, and several varieties of cave

In which regions has each species lived?

China:  Brown bear, Eurasian black bear, and panda bears have all lived in China; sun and sloth bears have lived nearby.  This is
the greatest diversity of bear species in the world – suggesting that bears first evolved in China.

Malaysia, Borneo, etc.:  sun bear

India and Sri Lanka/Ceylon: Sloth bear

Himalaya mountains north: brown and Eurasian black bear        

  • Brown bears  still live in some areas: a few in Italy and the Alps; hundreds in Scandinavia, and thousands in Eastern Europe.

  • Cave bears once lived in Europe as far East as the Caucas Mountains, but have been extinct since the end of the last Ice
    Age, about 12,000 years ago.

  • Eurasian black bears lived here in the ancient past but have since been confined to the Asian subcontinent.

British Isles: were once inhabited by brown and cave bears.

North America:  

South America:
  • Currently in the Andes: Andean spectacled bear,
  • Extinct:        At least 3 species of short-faced bear.

Arctic Ocean and surrounding shores of North America and Russia, as well as several polar islands including Svalbard and
 Polar bears.  During the last Ice Age, some polar bears lived as far south as Maine on the Atlantic and as Southeast
Alaska on the Pacific.  Currently, the farthest south they live is Hudson’s Bay.

Antarctica:  None.  No bears have ever lived there.  Had any bears ever somehow crossed from South America to Antarctica, the
abundance of penguins would have provided such a wealth of food that bear numbers could have skyrocketed.  The penguins only
defense would be diving into the ocean – where hungry leopard seals await.  So penguins would eventually be nearly exterminated.  
The fact that they still thrive is “proof” that bears never lived there.

What’s the difference between brown and grizzly bears?

Both are “arctos” bears – scientific name Ursus arctos.  They can all interbreed and produce fertile offspring.  So they are recognized
as a single species.

Polar bears evolved from brown bears.  They became genetically isolated from one another because their habitats diverged at the
end of an ice age -- not the most recent (Pleistocene) ice age which ended about 12,000 years ago, but one ending roughly 300,000
years ago.  Polar bears normally spend most of their life on the sea ice; grizzlies spend almost no time there.  Grizzlies spend
virtually all of their time on land -- where polar bears seldom venture.  Furthermore, the breeding season for polar bears begins
about 1 month before that for grizzly/brown bears.  These factors have tended to maintain genetic isolation between the species.  
However, now that warming of the Arctic is driving polar bears ashore even during breeding season, the chances of cross-breeding
have  increased dramatically.  Were this situation to continue for thousands of years, polar bears and/or grizzly bears would likely
evolve some mechanism that further minimizes interbreeding.

All Eurasian arctos bears are called “brown” bears.

Arctos bears living on the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia, where salmon abounded historically, are called “brown” bears.  
Those that once lived farther south on the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California, were called “grizzly” bears, as were all
living farther east.  Arctos bears living on the coast of Alaska above the Arctic circle are also called "grizzlies."       

The “guard hairs” of a brown bear’s fur tend to be solid in color along their length.  Those of a grizzly bear tend to have a light-colored
tip, giving the whole coat a grey or “grizzled” like, like the beard of a middle-aged man.  Arctos bears with a grizzled look are
uncommon in “brown bear” habitat; arctos bears with single-color guard hairs are uncommon in “grizzly” habitat.  

For simplicity, throughout rest of this manual, all North American arctos bears are called “grizzlies.”

Where in North America do black, grizzly and polar bears live?  

  • Black bears once inhabited virtually all forested land in North America.  They have since been exterminated throughout most
    of Eastern North America with the exception of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North
    Carolina, and Tennessee.  They are still common in the Rocky Mountain States and the western coastal states, as well as in
    most of forested areas of Canada.

  • Grizzly bears:  Within what are now the United States, they once occupied much of the land from the Pacific Ocean to the
    Mississippi River, from northern Mexico up to the Canadian border.  Now they survive only in the Rocky Mountains north of
    Colorado (mainly Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks) and in the Olympics of Washington state.  Grizzlies are still
    scattered through the national parks of the Canadian Rockies, as well as a few areas of coastal British Columbia.  They are
    more common in the northern provinces of Canada, from the Pacific Ocean to Hudson’s Bay.  

  • Polar bears inhabit the margins of the Arctic Ocean – especially the pack ice when that is available (i.e., during “winter”), then
    come ashore and wait for the next winter.  During the last Ice Age, some Atlantic polar bears lived as far south as Maine,
    where it is possible that some interbred with black bears.  During a much earlier Ice Age, around 300,000 years ago, some
    Pacific polar bears lived in Southeastern Alaska where they did interbreed with grizzlies (judging from genetic evidence).

See the Ghost Grizzlies text for additional details.

Are polar bears the only kind of white bear?  No

Some black bears have a white coat.  Some are albinos; they also lack pigment in their skin.  Others, known as Kermodes or “spirit”
bears have pigments in their skin and often some in their fur, giving it a yellowish or orangish tint.  Most live on the central British
Columbian coast, although few have been seen as far north as Juneau, Alaska or as far inland as Whitehorse.

Some non-albino grizzly bears also have white fur.  These – known as “ghost grizzlies” have been seen in the Rocky Mountains,
mainly during the 1800’s.  A few have also been seen in Alaska.  (see the Ghost Grizzlies text.)

How do you distinguish black bears from grizzly bears?

Location:  If you are in an area (e.g., Alaska’s North Slope) where only grizzly bears live, then any bear seen there other than a polar
bear is 99.999% likely to be a grizzly.  If you are within the contiguous USA away from the Rocky Mountains or the Olympics, any bear
you see in the wild is 99.999% certain to be a black bear.  It is only in habitats shared by the two species that you need to know more
to identify the species of any bear you see.

Facial profile:  Seen from the side, the profile of a grizzly bear’s face tends to be “dished” between the brows and the nostrils.  The
tip of the nostrils rises higher than the profile of the muzzle.  A black bear’s profile usually lacks this dishing.

Claws:   The finger claws of a black bear are short, strongly hooked and sharply tipped – which give a black bear a good grip on tree
bark when climbing.  The finger claws of a grizzly are much longer, straighter and blunter – which makes them effective shovels
when the bear digs for plant tubers or ground squirrels.  The toe claws are of similar length and shape in grizzly vs. black bears.

  • Face:  The fur of a black bear tends to be lighter on it s muzzle than on its head.  The fur of a grizzly tends to be the same
    color on muzzle and head.

  • Body:  If the fur is at all grizzled, it is probably a grizzly.  If the fur is coal black, it is almost certainly a black bear.  But all  colors
    are shared by both species.

Ears:  Those of a black bear tend to be proportionately longer than those of a grizzly.  However, the apparent length of a bear's ears
depends on the thickness of the fur on its head.  The ears of a black bear with a heavily-furred head may appear shorter than the
ears of a grizzly that has recently shed the fur off its head.  Also, the larger a bear grows, the smaller its ears appear relative to the
size of its head.  So this is the least reliable of the clues for distinguishing grizzlies from black bears.

e Ghost Grizzlies book descrobes several other differences (e.g., in shapes of the hands and feet).

Profile of the back:  When a bear stands four-footed on level ground, a grizzly’s shoulders are as high as or higher than its rump; for
a black bear, the rump is higher than the shoulders.  This is the single most reliable clue for distinguishing grizzly vs. black bears.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions to each of the above "rules of thumb."  
For example, some grizzlies have short claws; some black bears have a
shoulder hump.  If you rely on just one trait, you are likely to make mistakes.  
However if you consider all traits and then pick the best fit, you should
nearly always be right.  Of course, in the wilds, you may not be able to
see more than one or two clues, especially if the bear is in dense brush
and you catch just glimpses.  Don't jump to conclusions. Keep watching
until you has seen as many features as possible.
Or, if waiting is not feasible, assume it's a grizzly
and take precautions accordingly.

How do you distinguish a bear’s sex?
Sex organs

  • Cubs:  very difficult to see unless the cub is lying on its back.

  • Subadults: still easiest to tell if it’s lying on its back.

  • Adults:  The sex organs of a mature male can usually be seen between his hind legs.  Females can usually be distinguished
    because she is accompanied by cubs or because her breasts or vulva are visible.

Urination:  Unlike dogs, bears do not have any special postures used during urination to distinguish males vs. females.   However,
when urination occurs, the urine of a male shoots forward or to the side between his legs.  In fact, it may hit his legs, dribble down,
and become mixed with his own scent, which then taints the soil, leaving a chemical signal for any other beat that happens by.  By
contrast, the urine of a female shoots backwards from the vulva below her tail.  If a bear is walking as it urinates, a male’s next
footfall is likely to land on ground wet with his urine; a female’s next footfall won’t.  It is sometimes possible to discern in a bear’s
footprint whether any urine stream landed atop the print or vice versa.

How do you estimate a bear’s age or maturity?
See the Ghost Grizzlies text for additional details.

How do you distinguish one bear from another?
See the Ghost Grizzlies text for additional details
Identifying Bears
Index of  Bear  Webpages
Bear Viewing Association
To watch, to wonder, and to conserve
Ph/Fax (907) 260-9059 (Office)
39200 Alma Ave.    Soldotna, AK  99669
bear viewing Alaska, bear photography, bear safety, bear behavior

Answers to questions commonly asked by wildlife viewers on the topics listed below:
Bear Viewing Association
To watch, to wonder, and to conserve
Ph/Fax (907) 260-9059 (Office)
39200 Alma Ave.    Soldotna, AK  99669
bear viewing Alaska, bear photography, bear safety, bear behavior
(c) 2016 S. Stringham