Black Bear Facts
Black bears have become so famous that when people say bears you will most likely imagine a black bear. It certainly helps that they live on two continents: North America and Asia. That, and because they inspired the teddy bear. Learn more about black bears with these 40 Black Bear facts.
- A black bear’s head alone can measure up to 13 inches long.
- Their paws can also measure up to 10 inches long.
- A male black bear averages a weight of around 154 kg, while a female black bear averages a weight of around 106 kg.
- The biggest black bear ever recorded reached a weight of around 500 kg.
- Black bears can run at speeds of up to 48 kph.
- Black bears diverged from brown bears and polar bears around 5.05 million years ago.
- They later diverged from sun bears around 4.58 million years ago.
- American and Asian black bears diverged from each other around 4.08 million years ago.
- Asian black bears migrated to the Japanese Archipelago around 500,000 years ago.
- Humans began hunting the black bear between 11,000 and 10,000 BC.
- Black bear hunting peaked during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
- Black bear populations have remained stable from the 20th century onward.
- Teddy Roosevelt gained his nickname by refusing to shoot a black bear cub in 1902.
- Humans wiped out the black bear population on Prince Edward Island by 1937.
- A black bear lived in Iowa in 2019 for the first time since the 1880s.
- More black bears live in the world than every other bear species combined.
- International organizations generally designate black bears as a species of least concern.
- Mexico, however, considers black bears an endangered species thanks to their shrinking population in the country.
- Black bears can identify colors better than even chimpanzees.
- They can also learn simple shapes like circles, squares, and triangles.
American and Asian black bears have subtle physical differences from each other.
They mostly look alike, both having black fur and similar builds that people easily mistake one species for the other. The most visible difference involves a patch of white fur that Asian black bears have on their chests. American black bears, though, have thicker fur on their paws compared to their Asian cousins. Similarly, Asian black bears have bigger and stronger jaw muscles compared to their American cousins.
American black bears may also have fur of other colors, unlike Asian black bears which always have black fur. The other colors that American black bears have include blonde, chocolate-brown, light-brown, and white. American black bears from the Alaskan coast, in particular, have a distinctive silver color. That said, an estimated 70% of American black bears have the black fur that gives the species its name.
Asian black bears have several subspecies.
There’s the Formosan black bear, native to Taiwan, as well as the Balochistan black bear. The latter also goes by Pakistani black bear, as Balochistan refers to a province of the same name in Pakistan. There’s also the Japanese black bear, which tends to grow to a smaller size compared to other black bears, whether Asian or American. At most, a male Japanese black bear only reaches a weight of 120 kg for males and 100 kg for females.
Then there’s the Himalayan black bear, which grows a thicker fur compared to other black bears to adapt to the cold of the Himalayas. In contrast, the closely-related Tibetan black bear has a very thin coat with very short hair. Finally, we have the Ussuri black bear, native to the Russian Far East, which tends to grow towards the larger end of average for black bears.
American black bears have more subspecies than their Asian cousins.
There’s the Olympic black bear, the New Mexico black bear, and the Eastern black bear. The eastern black bear, in particular, has the distinction of rarely developing a white patch on its chest similar to those of Asian black bears. There’s also the California black bear, which may sometimes produce specimens with cinnamon-colored fur. In contrast, the cinnamon bear, another subspecies of the American black bear, always has cinnamon-colored fur.
The glacial bear, the same silver-furred bear we mentioned earlier from Alaska, also exists. Then, there’s the Florida black bear, the fur of which grows a distinctively shiny black color. We also have the spirit bear, 10% of which have fur with a distinctive cream color. The Newfoundland black bear grows the largest out of all the subspecies of the American black bear. Other subspecies include Dall Island, Kenai, Louisiana, Vancouver Island, and West Mexican black bears.
Both species have hybridized with other bears.
In 1859, the London Zoo attempted to breed American and Asian black bears with each other. The program succeeded with a litter of three hybrid cubs, but unfortunately, all three cubs died before reaching adulthood. Decades later, Tokyo’s Tama Zoo reported a successful hybridization experiment between a Japanese black bear and a sloth bear. More recently, the Las Delicias Zoo in Venezuela reported a successful mating between an Asian black bear and a spectacled bear in 1975.
Most recently, Cambodian locals discovered a wild hybrid between an Asian black bear and a sun bear in 2007. A Chinese charity later rescued another hybrid between an Asian black bear and a brown bear from a bile farm in 2010. In more unfortunate news, a Michigan hunter shot a bear in 1986, which experts confirmed as a hybrid between an American black bear and a grizzly bear.
American black bears live across North America.
In prehistoric times, they ranged across the entire continent, but today, they’re scattered in pockets broken up by human development. In Canada, they mostly live in the southern areas of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Experts estimate that the Canadian population of American black bears number at most 476,000. In the USA, American black bears mostly live in the Northeast and along the Appalachian Mountains.
Small pockets of bears have also appeared in reports from Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wyoming. California has a large and stable population of American black bears, with an estimated population of at most 35,000. Outside of California, experts estimate the USA’s American black bear population at 465,000 at most.
Asian black bears once lived across all of Eurasia.
Fossils indicate that Asian black bears once lived in Western Europe in prehistoric times. Today, however, they only live in the Asian part of the Eurasian supercontinent. Iran currently makes up the westernmost reach of the Asian black bear, with the animals ranging east through South Asia.
Except for Malaysia, all Southeast Asian countries have large and stable populations of Asian black bears. A similarly large and stable pocket of Asian black bears lives in the Russian Far East, as well as in Japan. South Korea also has a small but stable population of Asian black bears, as do Taiwan and Hainan.
Both species have similar breeding behaviors.
Females typically become sexually mature at the age of three, with the breeding season beginning in June. The season lasts for a month, at least outside of extreme northern latitudes, where it extends to August. Black bears stay pregnant for about eight months and give birth to litters of between two and four cubs.
Cubs are born blind, but quickly develop their eyesight and open their eyes only three days after getting born. They only drink milk for about four months at most, at which point they begin to eat solid food. Young black bears typically stay with their mothers for three years at most before their mothers drive them away to have a new litter.
They also share an omnivorous diet.
Common foods eaten by black bears include the eggs of various species, fruits, herbs, honey, insects, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, and termites. Despite bears having a reputation as hunters and predators, black bears don’t hunt that much. In fact, insects make up their main source of animal proteins.
That said, American black bears do go fishing during the spawning season, which their Asian cousins rarely do. Both species also scavenge any meat they can get from carcasses other predators leave behind. When they do hunt other large animals, they usually avoid adults and instead prefer to focus their attention on calves and other young prey.
They share some behavioral habits while differing in others.
For one thing, Asian black bears tend to live nocturnal lifestyles deep in the wild, while those living near humans instead stay active in the daytime. American black bears live the opposite way, staying active in the daytime when living deep in the wild, while those near humans instead turn nocturnal. That said, both species of black bears share most of their behavioral characteristics with each other.
They both spend around half their time up in trees, only declining in old age as their climbing ability degrades. Both species hibernate in winter, except Asian black bears which live in tropical countries, such as in Southeast Asia. Finally, both species have territorial tendencies, marking their territories using urine and responding with hostility to any animal that enters.
Both American and Asian black bears have distinct relationships with other predators.
Experts have observed Asian black bears intimidating other bears like brown bears, sloth bears, and sun bears. They’ve also observed Asian black bears fighting against tigers, while leopards have preyed on Asian black bear cubs. Wolves and lynxes also prey on Asian black bear cubs, although they generally avoid adults. In contrast, American black bears tend to find themselves intimidated by the bigger grizzly and Kodiak bears.
Experts have seen American black bears fighting with cougars, though, and even seen wolves deliberately attacking and killing those in hibernation. They’ve also recorded alligators preying on American black bear cubs, and records exist of at least one jaguar hunting American black bears for food.
Asian black bears have distinct legal protections.
There’s China’s National Protection Wildlife Law, as well as India’s Wildlife Protection Law. In the latter’s case, however, enforcement proves spotty due to the difficulty of actually finding witnesses to provide testimony in court. The nation also only has a limited number of wildlife forensic labs to investigate confiscated animal body parts. India’s long borders with its neighbors, and the mountainous terrain of those borders, also complicate enforcement against poachers and smugglers.
Japan’s Environmental Agency similarly lists Asian black bears as a protected species. In Russia, hunting Asian black bears currently remains prohibited, but a movement exists to legalize it. Ironically, the Russian scientific community supports the legalization of hunting Asian black bears. South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam have banned the hunting of Asian black bears.
They also face various threats to their future.
Human development makes up the biggest threat to the Asian black bear’s future, as it deprives the animals of their native habitat. In China alone, development between the 1940s and the 1990s deprived Asian black bears of 80% of their former habitat. Hunting follows human development as the second-biggest threat to the Asian black bear’s future.
Ironically, this doesn’t just cover the hunting of Asian black bears, but also of other animals. In particular, scientists have discovered an alarming number of Asian black bears getting caught in traps meant for other animals. This has caused hunters to accidentally kill Asian black bears despite all their legal protections.
American black bears have a reputation for attacking humans.
The bears usually avoid human encounters and only attack when humans get too close. There are reports of American black bears trying to scare humans away first before resorting to outright hostility. Most attacks typically take place near camping grounds, made worse by people deliberately feeding the bears.
With that, American black bears associate humans with food, so park officials strongly warn people not to feed the bears. Scientists have supported these warnings, pointing out how statistics show that when people don’t feed them, American black bears would actually go out of their way to avoid people.
They are known to attack livestock.
This usually occurs in early spring, when few plants have matured enough for American black bears to feed on them. This forces the animals to look for alternate sources of food, such as livestock left out on pasture. That said, they tend to prefer smaller prey, such as calves, goats, pigs, and sheep.
They may also attack pets, such as cats and dogs. This led experts to warn farmers against using attack dogs to deliberately try and keep American black bears away. American black bears tend to avoid adult cows and horses, but records exist of desperate American black bears attacking them for food.
Both the American and Asian black bears regularly have humans hunting them.
Most hunters in North America hunt black bears for sport. But to do that, they must have a license first, while also only able to go hunting in specifically-designated hunting seasons. Seasons vary on the location, while licenses prove easy to get, with the USA alone issuing an estimated 482,000 new hunting licenses per year.
In contrast, Canada typically averages only 81,000 licensed hunters per year. In addition to sport and food, the hunting of American black bears also serves as a way to keep their population in check. This stands out as hunting bears are illegal in all other countries.
American black bear meat has value as both food and for other uses.
Bear meat remains a staple among Native Americans today, as well as among colonial-era Americans. The 19th-century American writer Frank Forrester described it as tasting similar to pork with a savory texture. He also recorded that bear meat proved so important that New York City even reserved a whole marketplace solely for bear meat vendors. U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt later confirmed American black bear meat as tasting similar to pork and compared it favorably to grizzly bear meat.
Connoisseurs generally consider meat from the bear’s legs and thighs as the most flavorful. They also argue against removing the fat from the bones, as it helps give the meat flavor. Meat from the animal’s front legs, neck, and shoulders, instead gets ground up into minced meat. They also recommend high cooking temperatures, as American black bears may suffer from diseases like trichinellosis, which they can pass on to unwary diners.
Asian black bear meat has fewer uses in contrast.
Local religions actually forbid the hunting of Asian black bears, with usually only one explanation. Specifically, when the animals move too close to human settlements, it forces people to hunt them to secure their safety. In Japan, hunting bears traditionally ends with the offering of prayers for their souls. And in Taiwan, even in the face of necessity, traditional beliefs claim that bear hunters find themselves cursed once they kill even a single bear.
That said, Asians generally do not eat Asian black bear meat and consider their furs too low in quality for use as clothing, other body parts have uses of their own. In particular, Asian black bear bile and fat make up staples of traditional Chinese medicine, while their bones are ingredients of glues used in traditional handicrafts.
Some people have tamed Asian black bears.
In fact, traditional entertainers prefer to tame Asian black bears over any other kind of bear. The practice has spread outside of Asia, with circuses around the world using tame Asian black bears in performances. People who keep bears as pets also favor Asian black bears over any other kind of bear for their intelligence.
This proves especially the case in China as well as in Vietnam. Tamed Asian black bears typically have vegetarian diets, which help keep them docile. Their diet typically includes cassava, corn, fruit, rice, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. Caretakers also sometimes give them animal fat as treats to reward them for obedience.
An American black bear named Terrible Ted became famous in the late 20th century.
Born in captivity in 1949, a carnival had him declawed and defanged before training him as a circus bear. After the carnival’s bankruptcy in the early 1950s, Dave McKigney adopted Ted and advertised him as a wrestling bear. By 1959, Ted had participated in an estimated 500 wrestling matches against professional wrestlers and won them all. This winning streak ended in the 1960s, but Ted continued to participate in wrestling matches until 1975.
At that time, he wrestled against professional wrestlers from the National Wrestling Federation (NWF) and the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), such as The Beast and Superstar Billy Graham. Ted’s career ended in 1978, when animal wrestlers took custody of him after a fellow wrestling bear, Smokey, attacked and killed McKigney’s girlfriend. Both animals tested negative for rabies, but still found themselves placed in quarantine. Their ultimate fate remains unknown.
Both species have a place in various cultures.
Native Americans generally consider the American black bear as a creation of the benevolent Great Spirit. In contrast, they consider the grizzly bear as its antithesis, a creation of the malevolent Evil Spirit. The Navajo, in particular, believe an American black bear serves as a guardian of the Sun and prays to it for good fortune. The Asian black bear has a similar eminence, with the Japanese associating the animals with mountain spirits.
Hindus believe the god Jambavantha rules over Asian black bears and even appeared in the traditional Indian epic, the Ramayana. In the epic, Jambavantha helps the legendary god-king Rama find his wife Sita, and even fights alongside Rama against her captor, the demon lord Ravana. In popular fiction, Winnie the Pooh takes his name from Winnipeg, an American black bear from the London Zoo in the early 20th century.