A guide to understanding the differences between black bears, brown bears, polar bears and other bear species around the world.
There are eight species of bears and forty-six subspecies in the world. Bears vary in size, shape, color, and habitat. However, common characteristics like large stocky bodies, rounded ears, shaggy fur, and short tails make all species of the Ursidae or bear family, recognizable. Diet varies between species but all bears are omnivores, eating a mix of plants and animals. And yes, all bears love honey.
In this article, we’ll break down each species of bear, what they eat, where they live, and if they are dangerous.
|Feature||Black bear||Brown bears
(Grizzly and Kodiak)
|Color||Black or brown||Brown||White|
|Face||Straight||Dish-shaped||Narrow, long neck|
|Paws||Short claws||Long claws||Paddle-like paw|
|Diet||Berries, plant shoots, and nuts||Roots, berries, insects, and fish||Meat, primarily seals|
There are three species of bear native to North America. The most common is the American black bear, followed by the brown bear and then the polar bear.
From left to right: American Black Bear, Grizzly Bear, Kodiak Bear, and Polar Bear
Most numerous North American bears. Found throughout Canada, the USA, and Mexico.
Weighs 200 to 600 pounds.
Not always black in color. Can be dark or light brown (cinnamon), sometimes even white.
📍Location: The American black bear can be found throughout Canada, the USA, and Mexico. Their population is estimated at ~900,000 and not threatened. However, some subspecies such as the Louisiana black bear are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
📏 Size: Adults weigh 200 to 600 pounds and are 5 to 6 feet in length.
👀 Features: Most black bears are black, but their fur can range from dark brown to lighter brown (cinnamon) and even white on rare occasions. They have pointed ears and a straight face.
Of all the bear species black bears are some of the best at climbing trees. Their relatively smaller size and shorter claws make them fast and nimble to climb trees for protection, food, and even hibernation.
🌱 Diet: Their varied diet gives them the ability to live in a large range of habitats. The majority of their diet is vegetarian consisting of berries, plant shoots, and nuts. They also eat insects, fish, and carrion. And yes, they love honey.
😱 Dangerous? They are the most likely bear to be encountered in the backcountry. Attacks on humans are rare averaging only one per year in North America.)
Most widespread bear species are found in the northern Rocky Mountains, Alaska, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
The grizzly and Kodiak are the two subspecies of brown bears in North America.
Grizzlies are responsible for almost all bear attacks in North America, with 46 per year.
Brown bears are the most widespread of all bear species, found in the northern Rocky Mountains, Alaska, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The 200,000 brown bears of the world occupy a wide variety of habitats spanning deserts, forests, and mountains. Although their conservation status is “least concern”, their spread-out nature and reduced habitat make many of the small remaining pockets fragile.
All brown bears share a large build, a dish-shaped face, and a shoulder hump. Their color varies from light blonde to dark brown. Their hair is lighter at the tips, which led to the name of the most famous subspecies, grizzly.
Brown bears forage on roots, berries, insects, and fish, and some even hunt young mammals such as elk and moose. The two subspecies in North America are the grizzly and Kodiak.
A. GRIZZLY BEAR
📍Location: Grizzly bears are found in the northern USA, Canada, and Alaska. Of the 55,000 grizzly bears, 30,000 live in Alaska, 24,000 in Canada, and 1,500 in the lower 48.
📏 Size: Adults weigh 400 to 790 pounds, are 6.5 feet long, and have a shoulder height of 3.3 feet. Coastal grizzlies tend to be larger than those found in the Rocky Mountains due to a richer diet.
🌱 Diet: Grizzlies eat berries, nuts, salmon and have been known to prey on large mammals.
😱 Dangerous? Known for their aggressive behavior, grizzlies are responsible for the most bear attacks in North America. Each year there are 46 attacks and 6 deaths.
B. KODIAK BEAR
📍Location: Kodiak bears are only found on the Kodiak Islands, an archipelago in southwestern Alaska. Geographic isolation from the mainland allowed the 3,500 Kodiak bears to become their own subspecies.
📏 Size: Kodiak bears are almost as large as polar bears, weighing 600 to 1,400 pounds, 8 feet long, and 4 feet tall at the shoulder.
🌱 Diet: Their diet is similar to mainland grizzly bears. However, due to more plentiful food sources, the islands can support a denser bear population. This has led to a more complex social structure which leads to less conflict between bears.
😱 Dangerous? Like grizzlies, Kodiak bears can be aggressive. Due to their isolation, there is only one attack on humans every other year.
Largest species of bear in the world weighing between 800 and 1,300 pounds.
Diet is mostly made up of meat, often from seals.
Fur appears white but is actually clear.
📍Location: Polar bears are the largest bears and largest land carnivores on the planet. The world’s 20,000 to 30,000 polar bears range in the snow-covered arctic ice in Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Norway. They are a threatened species due to loss of habitat from climate change.
📏 Size: Adult polar bears are 800 to 1,300 pounds and can be 7 to 10 feet tall. Despite their enormous size polar bears can be fast, maintaining a 6 mph pace in the water. For context, swimmer Michael Phelps won Olympic gold medals with a 4.7 mph pace!
👀 Features: Compared to other bears, polar bears have a slimmer body, narrow head, longer neck, and paddle-like paws. Though they appear white, their fur is actually clear and their skin is black.
🌱 Diet: Their diet consists mostly of animals, especially seals which they can smell from a mile away.
😱 Dangerous? Polar bears can be extremely dangerous. They see humans as potential prey. Attacks are rare due to the remote nature of their habitat.
|Location||Avg. Size||Avg. Weight||Bite Strength|
|American Black Bear||North America||5.5 ft||400 lbs||744.3 Newtons|
|Grizzly Bear||North America||6.5 ft||600 lbs||1409.7 Newtons|
|Kodiak Bear||North America||8 ft||1000 lbs||1409.7 Newtons|
|Polar Bear||Worldwide||8.5 ft||1050 lbs||1646.7 Newtons|
|Asian Black Bear||Asia||5 ft||300 lbs||858.3 Newtons|
|Giant Panda||China||4 ft||300 lbs||1298.9 Newtons|
|Sun Bear (Honey)||Southeast Asia||4 ft||99 lbs||883.2 Newtons|
|Sun Bear (Sloth)||South Asia||5.4 ft||250 lbs||522.0 Newtons|
|Spectacled Bear||South America||5.3 ft||225 lbs||795.1 Newtons|
Known for its cream color chest blazes.
At 300 pounds one of the smaller bears.
Easy to tame and often common in circuses.
📍Location: The Asian black bear is found in forests and shrublands across Asia from Iran to Japan. The population is estimated at 40,000 to 50,000 and is considered vulnerable.
📏 Size: One of the smaller species, adults weigh around 300 pounds and stand 47 to 75 inches tall.
👀 Features: This bear is known for its big ears and cream-colored chest blazes in a crescent shape, giving the species its other common name: “moon bear.”
🌱 Diet: Depending on the season it commonly feeds on small mammals, birds, fish, mollusks and carcasses or grasses, fruits, berries, seeds, insects, and honey.
😱 Dangerous? They are one of the easiest bears to tame (and therefore common in circuses), but Asian black bears are more aggressive than their North American counterparts. Attacks on humans are increasing as people encroach on their habitat. In fact, the second person in history to receive a facial transplant was mauled by an Asian black bear while protecting his sheep.
Found only in China.
99% of its diet is bamboo.
Known for its iconic white face, eye patches, and striped body.
📍Location: Pandas are found only in China. Only 1,500 to 2,000 remain in the wild and they are considered a vulnerable species.
📏 Size: Pandas weigh around 300 pounds and can be over 4 feet tall, an impressive feat considering they weigh only about 3.5 ounces at birth.
👀 Features: The giant panda is iconic for its white face, black eye patches, and striped body. It also has a close cousin, the Qinling panda which has the same pattern in light brown and white.
🌱 Diet: Unlike other bears the panda’s diet is homogeneous; 99% of what they eat is bamboo.
😱 Dangerous? Attacks are rare but dangerous, given that pandas have one of the highest bite forces of any carnivore. All that fibrous bamboo keeps them regular: they poop over 40 times a day!
Smallest Bear weighing 55 to 143 pounds.
Found in South East Asia.
8 to 10-inch long tongue for slurping up insects and honey.
📍Location: The Sun bear is found in the forest and shrubland of South East Asia and India. It is the least studied bear and. Its population is uncertain but considered vulnerable and on the decline due to loss of habitat and poaching. Sun bears are hunted for their gallbladders and other body parts used in traditional medicines.
📏 Size: They stand only 39 to 55 inches and weigh 55 to 143 pounds making them the smallest bear.
👀 Features: Sun bears have strongly curved claws, small rounded ears, and a short snout. They are named for their pale, horseshoe-shaped chest patch that looks like a rising sun.
🌱 Diet: Sun bears tear apart trees and nests to eat ants, bees, beetles, termites, and honey. They also eat seeds, fruit, birds, and deer.
😱 Dangerous? Due to its shy nature, attacks are rare. Their love of honey has given them the nickname “honey bears.” In fact, they have an incredibly long tongue (8-10 inches) for slurping up insects and honey.
Native to South Asia.
Long, shaggy fur and mane gave them the name sloth bear.
Sloth bears are feared by rhinos and elephants.
📍Location: The Sloth bear is found in the low elevation savanna and shrubland of India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. With a declining population of less than 20,000, they are considered vulnerable.
📏 Size: They are 55 to 75 inches long and weigh 200 to 300 pounds.
👀 Features: With their long shaggy fur and mane, they are easy to tell apart from other Asiatic bears. European explorers mistook them for sloths after seeing them hanging upside down from trees. In reality, they are very fast and can out-gallop humans.
🌱 Diet: Their diet consists of termites, ants, and fruit. They are noisy, messy eaters tearing up termite mounds with their big curved claws. They blow the dust around with big puffs and suck the ants up so loudly they can be heard 600 feet away.
😱 Dangerous? They are one of the most aggressive bears, with the most attacks on humans, mostly due to surprise encounters. Sloth bears stand their ground if threatened and do not mix well with rhinos and elephants, often charging at each other when in proximity.
Only South American bear.
World’s last short-faced bear.
The name “spectacled” comes from the lighter markings around their eyes that look like glasses.
📍Location: The spectacled bear is the world’s last short-faced bear and the only bear native to South America. This vulnerable species of 13,000 to 18,000 remaining bears are found in the cloud forests of the Andes from Argentina to Ecuador.
📏 Size: They are mid-sized, weighing 175 to 275 pounds, and standing 47 to 79 inches tall.
👀 Features: The name “spectacled” comes from the lighter markings around their eyes that sometimes look like glasses. They spend most of their time in trees where they build nest platforms, sleep and jealously guard precious fruit and carcasses.
🌱 Diet: Spectacled bears are mostly herbivores with a diet consisting of mostly cactus, bromeliad, palm hearts, and fruit, but they will opportunistically eat mammals like rabbits and tapirs.
😱 Dangerous? Living in remote mountains, these shy bears may be the least dangerous of all bear species.
The Grolar bear (aka Pizzly) is a rare hybrid of a polar bear and a grizzly bear that occurs in both nature and captivity. Their bodies are smaller than polar bears but larger than grizzlies. They feature the long necks of polar bears and the shoulder humps of grizzlies. Grolar bear behavior is closer to the polar bear. In captivity, they have been documented stomping toys, similar to how polar bears break ice.
Black-brown hybrid bears have been bred in captivity, notably at the London Zoo in 1859, but have not been confirmed in the wild. In 1986, a suspected grizzly-brown hybrid was shot but DNA tests were unable to determine what type of bear it was.
Adorable koalas are not bears, they are burly marsupials. Water bears aren’t bears either, they are indestructible, microscopic animals that can survive in space. Red pandas? They’re in their own family that are closer cousins with skunks and raccoons than bears.
Most bear attacks occur when a bear is startled or protecting their cubs. Here are a few tips you can use to prevent bear encounters and keep you and your hiking buddies safe.
1. BEWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS. Watch for bear scat and bear tracks that may indicate a bear is nearby, in which case you want to be extra vigilant.
2. MAKE NOISE. This helps bears know you're here so they don't accidentally startle them. Consider attaching a bear bell to your pack.
3. KEEP YOUR DISTANCE. If you see a bear, do not try to approach or feed it. While you may have great intentions, a bear is likely to feel threatened when it sees you approaching and defend itself.
3. SECURE YOUR SCENTED ITEMS (AT CAMP). This includes food, but also your toiletries, for example. Lock these items in a bear canister or use a bear bag to hang them up in a tree. Whichever method you choose, make sure it's at least 200 feet away from your tent so you don't attract bears to your campsite.
4. STAY CALM. If you meet a bear, do not run. Try to make yourself look as big as possible, waving your arms above your head. You can also extend a jacket above your head to make yourself look larger. Speak to it calmly and slowly back away. DO NOT scream or try to scare the bear.
5. USE BEAR SPRAY (AS A LAST RESORT). If the bear is dangerously close (30 feet) or is charging at you, pull out your bear spray and use it in 1-2 second bursts, aiming slightly downward. Full instruction on how to use bear spray here.
6. FIGHT BACK. If all else fails and a bear attacks you, do not play dead. Fight back with all your strength and hope that it'll back down.
Which bear is the biggest?
Averaging 900-1500 lbs, 8.0 to 8.4 feet long, and 4.0 to 5.25 feet tall, the largest bear by both size and weight is the polar bear. The largest ever recorded was 2,200 lbs.
Which bear is the most dangerous?
All bears are dangerous if provoked. When in bear country, it’s always wise to carry bear spray. Globally, the Asian black bear is known for the most attacks. In North America, grizzly bears have the most fearsome reputation. It’s well deserved, especially when cubs are around. Each year there are approximately 46 grizzly attacks, 6 resulting in death. While you’re most likely to see an American black bear, on average there is only one attack per year.
Which bear is the strongest?
All bears are strong and not to be messed with. In terms of raw bite power, measured in Newtons, the polar bear's bite reigns supreme. When using the bite force quotient (bite power relative to size), the sun bear packs the most punch. Here's how they rank, from strongest to weakest:
Originally named “Hotfoot Teddy”, Smokey Bear was a black bear cub found in the spring of 1950 after a wildfire in New Mexico. He had climbed a tree to escape the fire but sustained burns on his paws and hind legs. Soon after he became an icon and to this day is the star of the longest-running public service announcement campaign.
Yogi Bear is an animated bear known for his love of “pic-a-nic” baskets. More importantly Yogi Bear has inspired countless thru-hikers to attempt to master the art of “yogi-ing”, the act of not quite begging but receiving favors from strangers.
Baloo s a sloth bear, although he has some characteristics of the Asian black bear. He is an easygoing, friendly bear who lives a responsibility-free lifestyle. He also might be the first bear to receive his pilot’s license.
WINNIE THE POOH
Before he was the storybook teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh was a black bear from Canada which the author’s son often would visit at the London Zoo. Winnie is short for “Winnipeg,” the town in Canada near where he was from.
By Justin Sprecher (aka "Semisweet"): Semisweet is a Wisconsin-based thru-hiker, adventurer and digital storyteller. You can find him exploring the upper midwest on foot, in a canoe and on a bike.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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