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Brown Bear, Ursus arctos

The brown bear (Ursus arctos) can be found in North America and northern areas of Eurasia. There are sixteen recognized subspecies of the brown bear. This is the most widely distributed species of bear in the world, although its range is shrinking. Its range includes the Alaska and a few other areas of the United States, areas of Russia, and Romania and other areas of the Carpathian region, as well as Canada, Sweden, Finland, and the Balkans. The brown bear derives its common name from the coloring of its fur, and is sometimes known as bruun, bruyn, or bruin. It derives its scientific name from the Latin and Greek words for bear, ursus and arctos respectively, and this is known as a tautology.

Generally, the brown bear can reach an average body length between 4.6 and 9.2 feet, with a height between 28 to 60 inches and a tail length between 2.4 and 8.7 inches. Males can grow to be three times the size of females in many subspecies. This difference in size is shown most notably in a few subspecies, including the Eurasian brown bear and the grizzly bear. It is thought that these variations are caused by the location of each subspecies, because their genetic data does not display major differences. Inland bears are typically smaller than bears found in other areas, like the Eurasian grizzly bear, which can measure 3.3 feet in length. The largest subspecies occur in far eastern areas of Russia and in Alaska and these are the Kodiak bear and Kamchatka brown bear, although other bears from coastal Asia and western areas of North America can reach large sizes as well. Female brown bears in this area can weigh up to 700 pounds and males can reach a weight of up to 1,400 pounds. Naturally, after hibernation, brown bears will weigh considerably less than when they enter hibernation.

The fur of the brown bear is typically long, and grows longer at the neck creating a mane. The coloring of the fur can vary depending upon the location, from reddish brown in India to bi-colored in China. In North America, brown bears can vary in color from light cream to dark brown or black. The winter fur of the species is long, particularly the fur of northern subspecies, which can reach a length of five inches, and the summer fur is short and can vary in length depending upon the location. The claws of this species are long, reaching an average length between 2 and 3.9 inches. These claws can vary in color from light to dark, and are blunt. Because of this and its large size, the adult brown bear cannot climb trees.

The Eurasian brown bear subspecies can be found in Europe, the Caucuses, Mongolia, and most areas of Siberia excluding the east. This subspecies is typically dark in color and is large. In Europe, this brown bear is smaller and prefers a habitat in forested areas. It is hunted more often than Eurasian brown bears found in Siberia. The East Siberian brown bear is a medium sized bear with a large skull and is typically dark in color. The Tibetan blue bear is also moderately sized, but can be both dark and light in color. These are just three subspecies of the brown bear, but all are medium sized bears. Other subspecies include the possibly extinct California golden bear and Mexican grizzly bear, the Kodiak bear, the Syrian brown bear, and the Ussuri brown bear.

One former subspecies has now been found to be a hybrid called the European brown bear or Cantabrian brown bear. This bear can reach an average weight between 290 and 400 pounds and is among the smallest of all brown bear subspecies. Despite this, it is the largest species on the Iberian Peninsula. Its fur varies in color from light cream to dark brown with black fur occurring on the paws. In Spain, this hybrid is considered to be endangered.

The brown bear is nocturnal and mostly solitary, gathering in large hierarchal groups only when sharing a common food source. Older males are the most aggressive and younger males will avoid them, but adult females with cubs will behave as aggressively as adult males. Younger bears of both sexes tend to avoid conflict, but have been seen interacting together. These bears show dominance by stretching their necks, twisting their muzzles, biting, and exposing their fangs. A subordinate bear will lower itself to the ground and turn away to show it does not want to fight. When fighting occurs, the brown bears will hit each other with their paws and bite the necks or heads of their opponent. This species can make a large variety of vocalizations, including grunts, growls, and roars when angry and woofs or bawls when nervous. Mothers will communicate with their young by humming or bleating.

The breeding season for the brown bear occurs between the months of May to July. This species is monogamous and pairs will remain together for up to two weeks, breeding often during that time. Females display delayed implantation, giving birth about seven months after breeding. Mother’s will give birth in dens while hibernating, so weight gained during the previous summer and fall season is highly important to the cub’s survival, but if the female does not gain enough weight to support the cub before hibernation, the egg will be absorbed into her body. The number of cubs per litter depends on age and location, with older females giving birth to more cubs. Mothers take complete care of their cubs, which are born helpless and weighing less than one pound. Nursing continues until spring or summer, depending upon the subspecies and its range, after which time cubs can weigh up to twenty pounds and are able to forage on their own.

Although brown bear cubs are able to forage at only a few months of age, they remain with their mother for up to four years. During this time, they learn hunting and safety skills, among other things. While the cubs remain with their mother, they face the danger of infanticide, because adult males will try to kill them in order to breed with their mother or to eat them. The cubs are small enough to climb trees for safety, and their mother usually defends them successfully, even though adult male bears can be significantly larger than she can.

The diet of the brown bear is possibly the most omnivorous of all bear species. It varies depending upon the subspecies, but the entire species is known for being curious about anything that could possibly be edible. It prefers food that is abundant and easily caught or found. Although this bear is omnivorous, it gains about ninety percent of its energy from plant materials. It consumes berries, acorns, grasses, pine cones, flowers, fungi, and occasionally mushrooms. These bears can dig up roots and tubers better than any other bear species, because of their strong claws. The animal material that this species consumes includes larvae, insects, grubs, and beehives.

The general diet of the brown bear can vary depending upon the subspecies and it range. Bears located in coastal regions will often consume clams and crabs, and bears located in Yellowstone National Park eat a large number of moths during the summer months, consuming as many as 40,000 each day. Brown bears in many regions will supplement their diet with a number of small creatures including rodents like voles, ground squirrels, mice, and lemmings. Bears located on the Kamchatka peninsula and areas of Alaska often consume salmon. It is thought that the large size of these bears can be traced to these salmon, which are highly nutritious.

When consuming salmon, the brown bear will either try to catch the fish midair or try to kill it with its claws. The most common parts eaten are the eggs and heads of spawning salmon, because they hold the most nutrients. During the spawning season of the salmon, brown bears will gather in large numbers, and males will fight for the best spots to catch their prey.

Brown bears are not typically active hunters, excluding those bears that eat a regular diet of salmon. Many brown bears will aggressively hunt at least one prey item in their lives, but it is more common to see one awkwardly chasing their prey only to see it escape. Despite this, some bears are skilled hunters and will easily take down large prey such as deer, caribou, and elk.

Domesticated animals like cows, bison, goats, and sheep are also regularly hunted in some areas.  The bears will choose injured, old, or young prey to make it easier to hunt and will eat it alive, instead of killing it first. The bears will stun or knock down prey when needed, especially if their target is aggressive. In areas where humans are present, brown bears are known to scavenge through trash.

Brown bears share ranges with other large predators, and encounters often end in dominance displays or fights. The bears, being larger than other predators, most often win. They are known to fight with Siberian tigers and entire packs of wolves, often winning the conflict and eating their opponent. In areas where brown bears and wolves are present, the bears will often try to scare the wolves away from a kill, and are usually successful. These occasions rarely end in violence, and the wolves will sometimes allow the bear to share their kill. Other common predators that bears come into contact with include coyotes, cougars, lynxes, and wolverines, but these smaller animals typically avoid the bears.

Because the brown bear is so large, it is not typically a prey item throughout its range. However, in some areas, these bears may be consumed by Siberian tigers. After emerging from hibernation, it is common for brown bears in Russia to follow Siberian tigers in order to steal their prey, and these are known as satellite bears. In far eastern areas of Russia, the brown bear and the smaller Asiatic black bear make up five to eight percent of the Siberian tiger’s diet, but some experts assert that this cannot be true because the tiger is nearly extinct. Despite this, Siberian tigers in that range have been known to attack bears that are hibernating or bears that have just emerged from their dens.

Brown bears also share ranges with other species of bear, and will typically win any disputes over territory or food. The American black bear is much smaller than the brown bear, but conflicts do not often occur. However, brown bears are known to chase black bears out of their habitat and the two species do compete for territory and food sources. Asian black bears may also compete with brown bears, but will most often avoid their larger relative. In contrast to this, brown bears in the Himalayas are said to avoid Asian black bears, although this cannot be proven. In recent years, it has been found that brown bears are moving into the range of polar bears. The brown bears often dominate the polar bears and will even kill and eat their cubs.

Brown bears do not only share a range with other creatures, but also with humans, and these bears are becoming increasingly interested in human areas like dumps. Because humans are moving father into the bear’s natural habitat, the bears are becoming brave and venturing into barns and other areas in search of food. This is highly dangerous to the bear because it will return to any site where food is easily gathered, and this increases the danger to both humans and bears. Even when the bears are relocated, they may return to human areas. This relocation may also cause problems for other bears, because new bears are entering their territory. It is often difficult to relocate bears, so many are killed without that chance.

In Yellowstone National Park, bear encounters are quite common because this area holds some of the best habitat choices for the grizzly bear, one subspecies of the brown bear. Humans visit this park in great numbers, and more people are moving into the park because of its beautiful scenery. Many of those who move into the park choose remote areas, but these areas are chosen for bear relocation. Male bears tend to dominate prime areas of relocation, pushing females into less viable areas or out of the park completely. Most bears encounter humans on the outskirts of the park, however, making females the most likely to die. The grizzly bear is an endangered species in the U.S. and these interactions make their status even more vulnerable.

Brown bears in Europe also encounter humans, but in a different manner than bears in the United States. Shepherds are beginning to give up the traditional form of herd protection using dogs, allowing their flocks to roam freely across bear inhabited areas. Some shepherds believe that the bears are a threat to their livelihood, but most are now informed enough to know that their flocks are encroaching upon bear territory and they can file a claim if any of their flock is killed. It is thought that humans may have caused the extinction and habitat fragmentation that occur throughout many bear’s ranges. This has been seen in in the Lesser Caucuses and Greater Caucuses.

Although brown bear attacks do occur, this species prefers to avoid humans if possible. In North America, two or more bear attacks occur each year that result in a fatality. Most bear attacks occur when a human has surprised the bear, or when a bear has become curious and entered into a human settled area like town or city. Other attacks occur when mothers feel their cubs are threatened or when a bear feels as though its meal is in danger of being stolen. Seventy percent of fatal attacks in North America occurred when a female felt her cubs were threatened. Because adult brown bears cannot climb trees, they must defend themselves first with threats and then with violence if necessary.

Brown bears show a tendency to attack small groups of people, but one case has been recorded of a group of six humans being attacked. These bears will grunt before attacking, and will show the same behaviors it used when attacking other bears. It will use its claws and strong paws to attack its opponent, or humans, while its mouth holds onto the jaw to prevent bite injuries to its own self.

Unlike American black bear attacks that rarely lead to death, brown bear attacks can cause serious injury or death. The large size of these bears means that they can kill a human in a single bite or swing of its paws, much like a tiger. North American bear attacks typically occur in the warmer summer months of July, August, and September, when many humans take part in hiking, hunting, and other recreational activities. When entering a brown bear’s range, it is best that a human make loud noises, to alert the bear to their presence. Humans who run are more likely to be attacked than humans that stand their ground.

Native American tribes that lived in the same area as brown bears regarded them with fear and awe. Hunting did not often occur, but when it did, the Native Americans considered it a ritualistic process and took at least four hunters in a party. Those who killed the bear were highly regarded among the tribes. In California, Native Americans did not hunt bears and were warned against encounters before hunting other creatures. During the time the Spanish were colonizing area of North America, the Native Americans would seek the help of anyone who was willing to deal with the bears. Many written accounts tell of both voyagers and Natives with scarred or deformed faces due to bear attacks.

As the number of bear attacks increase, safety measures are becoming increasingly important. However, one American and Canadian study has shown that if attacked by a bear, pepper spray is more effective than a gun. Despite this, authorities suggest that humans entering bear territory should carry a deterrent and a heavy hunting gun, like a rifle. It has also been found that if a human is using only lethal bullets that death is less likely to occur. In Alaska, the State of Alaska Defense of Life or Property (DLP) laws require that a bear kill must be reported so the hide, skull, and claws can be saved.

Brown bears have been present in human culture in a number of countries. In North America, some Native American tribes thought that the bear was a god. One legend speaks of black bears and brown bears. The black bear was a Great Spirit, while the grizzly bear was and Evil Spirit. In one Kwakiutl myth, brown bears and black bears kill each other’s offspring after a Grizzly Bear Woman killed the child of a Black Bear Woman because it was lazy. The grizzly bear is the state animal in both California and Montana. Today, many United States universities use the brown bear as a mascot, including the University of California, Los Angeles, George Fox University, and Brown University.

Brown bears also appear in North American and European literature, most notably in children’s books. One Scottish fairy tale tells the story of a girl who marries bear who is actually a prince, and through her love, is able to turn him back into a human. The English story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is typically told using brown bears. In the United States, a popular children’s book is called “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” which helps children understand their colors.

The brown bear appears in both Bern’s and Madrid’s coats of arms. It is commonly thought that the city of Bern derives its name for the German word for bear. In southern France, the city of Prats de Molló located in Vallespir holds a festa de l’ós or “bear fesitival,” in which locals dress up as bears and cover themselves with oil or soot. The “bears” will attack the crowd that watches, attempting to get them dirty, and will then conclude the festival with a ball de l’os or “bear dance.”

The conservation statuses of brown bear subspecies vary from “Least Concern” to “Extinct,” but the species as a whole is listed as a species of “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List. The California grizzly bear is one of subspecies that is thought to be extinct and the grizzly bear is a vulnerable subspecies, although its population numbers may be growing. In Europe, the brown bear is a European Protected Species and is protected from hunting throughout the European Union.

Image Caption: Alaska Brown Bear, Hallo Bay, Katmai National Park, Alaska. Credit: Marshmallow/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)

Brown Bear Ursus arctos


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