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What Are Bears?

/ Post by Katie Billing

Most of us know of grizzly bears, pandas and polar bears, but what makes all of these animals “bears?” Bears fall in the family Ursidae, which contains 8 species in 5 genera including Ursus, Tremarctos, Melursus, Helarctos, and Ailuropoda. This family includes our beloved black bear, brown bear, polar bear, Asiatic black bear, sloth bear, spectacled bear, sun bear, and giant panda bear.

Bears are found in all continents except Antarctica and Australia. They live in all sorts of terrestrial environments including the tundra, mountains, temperate forests, deserts, and grasslands. These environments help these bears display typical behaviors, including finding food. Most bears are omnivorous meaning that they eat both meat and vegetation. Panda bears prefer to eat bamboo. These bears have an additional opposable “thumb” which helps them grab branches. All other bears have about four toes on each paw and non-retractile claws. Bear claws are helpful with climbing trees and digging. All bears also have plantigrade feet, meaning that their feet have high surface area contact with the ground. Plantigrade feet also play a role in bearing weight and achieving stability. This adaptation helps the world’s largest bear, polar bears, cross the arctic ice.

Bears are long-lived animals. In the wild most bears live up to 25 years of age and captive bears can live up to 50 years and beyond. One of the world’s oldest bears was a polar bear named Debby who lived at the Winnipeg Assiniboine Park Zoo in Canada and died at age 42. (In fact, Erica Wills met this polar bear on our PBI trip in 2008 before she passed away!) Bears are captivating mammals because they are clever, large, ferocious, and entertaining.

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