Mostly found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, bears are some of the most fascinating creatures on the planet with each of the bear species boasting their own unique characteristics. While the huge polar bear is hypercarnivorous and the giant panda almost solely eats bamboo, the rest are omnivorous in nature and enjoy varied diets with plants, insects and, of course, honey all featuring.
Very adaptive animals, they reside everywhere from the freezing Arctic Circle to the soaring Andes Mountains with many also living in forests, grasslands or even on islands in Southeast Asia. Due to the diverse array of landscapes they inhabit, all types of bears are opportunistic eaters and are happy to use their excellent climbing and swimming skills to hunt, fish and forage for food wherever they go.
1. Polar Bear
Although they are the largest carnivorous land mammal on Earth, polar bears actually spend most of their lives out on the endless sea ice of the Arctic Circle. In this inhospitable environment, they hunt for seals, their primary prey, and use their superb swimming skills, sharp claws and wonderful white fur to approach breathing holes before sitting, waiting and snatching their poor unsuspecting victim.
The largest species of bear, males can remarkably weigh up to 1,700 lb and reach 9 ft 10 in in length with females typically clocking in at around half this size. Perfectly camouflaged against the ice and snow around them, their thick fur and fat also helps keep them warm and stay afloat in the freezing, cold water. Now sadly classified as vulnerable, estimates put their total global population at just 20,000 to 30,000.
2. Grizzly Bear
Also known as the North American brown bear, giant grizzlies can be found throughout the remote, wild reaches of Alaska, western Canada and parts of the American Northwest. While their range has decreased dramatically over the decades, around 55,000 or so are believed to still live in the wild with over half these individuals residing in Alaska alone.
Except for females with cubs, grizzly bears are quite solitary in nature although they do sometimes gather in groups along the coast when the salmon spawn. Although these bears in Alaska and British Columbia usually weigh several hundred pounds more than inland populations, they still only reach about half the size of the massive polar bear.
Besides feeding on all kinds of plants, the omnivorous creatures sometimes take down larger prey such as elk, moose and caribou and even attack and eat their close relatives the black bear on rare occasions.
3. American Black Bear
The smallest yet most populous and widely distributed bear species on the continent, the American black bear mainly lives in dense forests or remote mountain regions across Mexico, Canada and the US. Although there are thought to be more than 600,000 of the incredible animals still remaining in the wild, hunting, habitat loss and human encroachment mean their range is now much reduced.
Despite their name, the color of their coat actually varies from silver-grey and cinnamon to cream, dark chocolate and even white, depending on their environment and genetics. Both omnivorous and opportunistic, they eat whatever is available and abundant with roots and berries, insects and fish all featuring in their diet that is around 95 percent plant-based. During winter, the bears hibernate so as to avoid the worst of the cold weather and avoid any potential food shortages.
4. Giant Panda
One of the most popular animals on the planet, the giant panda is renowned for its distinctive black and white coat, rotund body and the large patches about its eyes. Native to the temperate forests and mountains of South Central China, the rare, elusive and solitary bear is now listed as a vulnerable species with no more than 2,000 to 3,000 reckoned to still live in the wild.
While adult males can reach up to 6 ft 3 in long and weigh as much as 350 lb, females are just a bit smaller in general with both sexes using their canine teeth to almost only eat bamboo. As its shoots and leaves have next to no nutritional value, the giant bears eat up to 30 lb a day to compensate for its limited energy content that also leads to them defecating as much as forty times a day.
5. Asian Black Bear
Also sadly listed as vulnerable is the Asian black bear which was once relatively widespread across much of the continent. While deforestation, poaching and the traditional medicine trade all still pose serious problems for the beleaguered bears, they still inhabit everywhere from Afghanistan and the Himalayas to Southeast Asia, Japan and the Korean Peninsula.
Similar in size to their American cousins, mature males normally weigh between 130 to 440 lb and measure six feet in length with females being slightly shorter and lighter. Easily distinguished by the white patch of fur on their chest, they are impressively the most bipedal of bears and are also known to be very competent climbers. Predominantly found in forested areas, the unfussy creatures gorge on whatever food is in season, ranging from insects and larvae to vines and fruit, nuts and eggs.
6. Brown Bear
The most widely distributed species of bear in the world, the beautiful brown bear roams throughout the forests and mountains of North America, Europe and Asia. Thought to consist of around fifteen subspecies, its total global population is believed to stand at over 200,000 although local extinctions and threats mean that its historic range has shrunk considerably.
Due to all the diverse ecosystems it inhabits, the brown bear is the most variable in size of all bears with their weight and length also depending on their subspecies, sex and the season. While grizzlies along the Pacific coast are the largest, the Himalayan brown bear is the smallest with the Marsican brown bear in Italy thought to be the rarest. Despite being equipped with sharp claws and teeth, they are not particularly active predators with almost 90 percent of their diet consisting of plants, shoots, leaves and berries.
7. Short-Faced Bear (extinct)
One of the largest and most powerful predators to ever exist on Earth, the short-faced bear of North America went extinct some 11,000 years or so ago. Fossil records show that the enormous omnivore flourished for countless millennia until a combination of factors such as cooling weather, increased competition for food and scarcer prey pushed their populations beyond the point of no return.
As they weighed several thousand pounds and towered at least 11 feet tall, the bears are thought to have used their intimidating size to bully smaller predators such as saber-tooth cats, dire wolves and American lions out of kills. Despite their size and strength, dental damage indicates the short-faced bear enjoyed a very varied diet similar to opportunistic bears of today, with its closest living relative being the spectacled bear of the Andes.
8. Sloth Bear
Native to the Indian subcontinent is the sloth bear which is so named due to its sickle-shaped claws, long, shaggy hair and slightly scruffy appearance. Now classed as vulnerable due to habitat loss and degradation, it can be found in lush forests and low-lying hills throughout India and Sri Lanka with some also living in neighboring Nepal and Bhutan.
As it has a long, thick muzzle and lacks upper incisors, it is also sometimes called the ‘labiated bear’ as it sucks up ants and termites through its long lower lip and palate. While these insects are by far its preferred prey, the medium-sized bears supplement their diet with fruit, honey and plant matter which they also regurgitate for their young. Their fur is completely black save for a whitish mark on their chest although this is sometimes absent with Sri Lankan specimens.
9. Eurasian Brown Bear
Another member of the brown bear family is the Eurasian subspecies which once was found across much of the massive continental landmass. Although long extinct in countries like Ireland, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, the huge omnivore still exists in substantial numbers in remote parts of the Balkans, Northern Europe and Russia.
Also known as the European brown bear, it can grow up to 8 ft 2 in long and reach a hefty weight of 1,058 lb with the majestic creatures typically living to the age of about 20 to 30 in the wild. Due to their striking size, wide distribution and impression they’ve made on local populations, the big bears frequently feature in fairy tales and folk stories and often act as important national symbols.
10. Spectacled Bear
Besides being the only remaining bear native to South America, the spectacled bear is also the sole surviving species of short-faced bear. While it is found almost exclusively in the Andes Mountains, it has a reputation for being highly adaptable, living in scrub deserts, cloud forests and high-altitude grasslands.
Although populations of the vulnerable species have sadly become fragmented in recent years, their distribution still spans more than 2,800 miles from Colombia and Venezuela to northern Argentina. So named due to the distinctive beige-colored markings across its chest and face, it is also known as the Andean bear because of the area it inhabits. Excellent climbers, they often build platforms up in trees so they can rest with the amazing bears mainly eating bulbs, leaves, fallen fruit and cacti.
11. Sun Bear
Like its cousins the sloth and spectacled bear, the sun bear sports a magnificent marking on its chest and doesn’t hibernate as it too lives in warmer climes where it doesn’t have to worry about seasonal food shortages. The smallest and most arboreal of the entire species, it lives in dense tropical forests in Southeast Asia as well as on Sumatra and Borneo.
Very shy and reclusive in general, they spend a lot of their time up trees where they sunbathe, sleep and search for food with their diet primarily consisting of fruits, seeds and honey. Usually weighing between 55 to 143 lb, the lovely little sun bears measure about 39 to 55 inches in length with their silky, jet-black fur only being punctuated by their U-shaped chest marking.
12. Tibetan Blue Bear
Yet another subspecies of brown bear is the incredibly rare Tibetan blue bear of the vast, elevated plateau of the same name. As it is only seldom spotted amid the region’s prominent peaks, very little is actually known about the elusive animal which is posited as a possible inspiration behind the ape-like Yeti of Himalayan folklore.
Although it was first classified way back in 1854, relatively little has since been revealed about the slightly bluish colored bear with some even believing it to already be extinct. Historically found throughout the eastern Tibetan Plateau, it is known to live at high altitudes close to the tree line with human encroachment and the traditional medicine trade being the main threats it faces to its already precarious situation.