With famous faces ranging from Paddington to Baloo, these solitary animals loom large across the globe both figuratively and literally. Bears are found mostly in the Northern Hemisphere, with the exception of Paddington's relatives, spectacled bears, which live in the cloud forests of South America (including, of course, deepest, darkest Peru). Grizzly and black bears are found extensively across Canada and parts of the US, while polar bears are restricted to the Arctic, and have slightly different characteristics and adaptations that help them survive here.
Grizzly and black bears hibernate in warm dens during the winter to minimise their energy expenditure when there is less food readily available. Cubs are born during this time in a warm and secure environment. Before hibernation bears need to build up body fat by eating as much food as possible, a period lasting around two to four months known as hyperphagia. Grizzly bears dig dens for winter hibernation, often in a suitable-looking hillside. If there is a mild winter with a consistent food supply, black bears may only hibernate for a short time, or not at all. Polar bears don't need to hibernate, as they are better adapted to the bitter cold.
As polar bears live in some of the coldest environments on earth, they have adapted to survive here with thick coats of insulated fur; black skin under their fur, which makes it easier for them to soak up the sun's rays; and white coats which give them camouflage in the snow and ice. They are also strong swimmers thanks to their large, slightly webbed, front paws, and can swim for hours at a time in search of food.
Luckily for them, bears find themselves at the top of the food chain, and generally eat anything and everything. Grizzly and black bears have similar diets, mostly enjoying nuts, fruit, leaves and roots, as well as animals ranging in size from rodents to moose, and they also catch spawning salmon. Spectacled bears meanwhile are primarily vegetarian, and are known to sometimes spend days sitting in a tree waiting for fruit to ripen (paint drying springs to mind). Polar bears mostly prey on seals and also scavenge carcasses such as those of dead whales (yum); they have to spend around half their lives hunting for food as they have such a low success rate.
Where to See Them
Grizzly bears can be spotted fishing for salmon in British Columbia between September and November, and throughout the wilds of Canada and Alaska year-round. Black bears can be found throughout the US and Canada, while their rare sub-species, Spirit or Kermode bears, live in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. Scope out Paddington's spectacled bear relatives in the cloud forests of South America. For the chance to see polar bears, head to the remote town of Churchill in Manitoba in Canada to go on a walking safari with an expert and highly trained guide to try and get close to the these majestic bears; or head to the east coast of Svalbard in Norway to try and spot polar bears on a snowmobile adventure (although it is illegal to actively go out looking for or hunting polar bears here).
Abigail Harness, Americas Specialist
Kuiu Island in Alaska is home to one of the densest populations of black bears in the world, and here you can kayak through the waters on the lookout for bears fishing for salmon.
- 10 feet - Height male brown bears can reach
- 6 miles per hour - Speed polar bears can swim at
- 800 pounds - The average weight of a grizzly bear