There are a lot of bear species and numerous subspecies that live all over the world. We’ve never met a bear we didn’t like, but let’s face it, some types of bears are better than others. Find out what makes each bear species unique.
The koala bear is not a bear. Nor is the Asian bearcat, the water bear, the teddy bear, or the red panda. The koala is a marsupial; the Asian bearcat (also known as the binturong) is a viverrid, related to civets and genets; the water bear (also known as the tardigrade) is a bizarre microscopic extremophile; the teddy bear is an inanimate object; and the red panda is…well, nobody knows what the red panda is. It’s in its own family, tentatively placed in the same superfamily as weasels and raccoons. Great animals all, but none are bears.
The brown bear has as many as 90 subspecies, all of which are more interesting than the plain-jane Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos). There’s nothing wrong with the boring brown bear, also called the Eurasian brown bear, common brown bear, and European bear. It’s big and brown and lives all across northern Europe and Asia, it’s very long-lived (up to 48 years in captivity), it will eat pretty much anything it can find (moths, beehives, birds, crabs, fish, roots, leaves, large mammals like mule deer) though it is kind of a crappy hunter. (From Wikipedia: “Many predation attempts start with the bear clumsily and half-heartedly pursuing the prey and end with the prey escaping alive.”)
The Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), also known as the moon bear (cool name, admittedly) or the white-chested bear, is the second-worst bear. Rudyard Kipling called it “the most bizarre of the ursine species,” which I don’t know that I’d agree with, but it is one of the most unpredictable and dangerous bears on the planet. That’s despite being closely related to the American black bear, which is mostly docile, and despite being only a medium-sized bear at most. The Asian black bear lives throughout eastern Europe and Asia, as far east as Japan (where it’s known as tsukinowaguma, literally “crescent bear”). It coexists with tigers, and in fact is sometimes preyed upon by tigers. Most bears are apex predators or at least have no natural predators, so it’s theorized that this pressure makes it more aggressive. In fact, it’s more aggressive towards humans, often when unprovoked, than American black bears or Eurasian brown bears. This is lame! But: the Asian black bear is also the victim of the disgusting trade in bear bile, in which a bear is kept alive and injected with an enormous and enormously painful syringe to retrive bile from its gall bladder. Bear bile is used in some Eastern medicines. So, you know, maybe it’s okay that it attacks humans sometimes. But! The best thing about listing bears by quality is that all bears are pretty great. The Asian black bear is the most bipedal of all bear species, and is known to walk on its hind legs for up to a quarter mile. Haha aw.
Here’s where we get into the meat of the list: every bear from here on out is pretty great. The Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi), the largest subspecies of brown bear, is a also known as the Alaskan grizzly bear, though it does not have the “grizzled” fur pattern of the grizzly bear subspecies. The Kodiak bear lives exclusively in the Kodiak archipelago in southwestern Alaska, where it feeds mostly on shoots and plants until the salmon return in the summer. It is a massive bear, roughly tied with the polar bear as the largest bear species in the world–mature males can weigh up to 1,500 pounds, which is significantly heavier than a Fiat 500. Subspecies of brown bear are tricky; there could be as many as 90, and the divisions are always a little unclear because they sometimes interbreed. But the Kodiak is very isolated, having been separated from its closest relative, the Kamchatka brown bears of Russia, for about 10,000 years. The population is small and isolated, but healthy; there are probably around 3,600 bears in the wild, and their numbers are actually increasing. Clarification: In comparing the weight of a Kodiak bear to a Fiat, I mistakenly used a stats sheet for the original Fiat 500, which was sold from 1957-1975 and had a curb weight of about 1,100 pounds, rather than the flashy new Fiat 500. The modern 500 is heavier than a Kodiak bear.
The Himalayan red bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) is actually another subspecies of brown bear; its name comes from its cinnamon-colored coat. It’s the largest animal in the Himalayan range, though for bears (and especially for the usually large brown bear) it’s fairly small. It ranks more highly in the list than other brown bears because, bizarrely, it is believed to be the source of the Yeti legend. There’s no other animal as big in its range, and it commonly walks on its hind legs, leaving mysterious footprints in the snow that have been interpreted as ape-like. Some of the native terms for the bear could be confusing as well–mi-teh in Tibetan is translated as “man-bear,” which plays up the primate/yeti-like element of the bear. The Himalayan red bear is not very well-studied, as its population is quite low–it’s already believed to be extinct in Bhutan.
The grizzly bear is named for the grey, grizzled hairs in its otherwise-brown fur, not for any perceived scariness in the subspecies. In 1815, already possessing the common name “grizzly,” it was given the latin name Ursus arctos horribilis because the naturalist who named it assumed it was called the “grisly” bear. It can be found throughout western Canada and Alaska, and down into some of the western states that straddle the Rocky Mountains. It’s also on the California state flag, even though the last California grizzly was shot about a hundred years ago. The grizzly is the most common brown bear subspecies in North American–bigger than the Eurasian brown bear but not as big as the Kodiak. And it has a fabled place in the American west–it’s an apex predator, it fights with wolves, it tends to fight rather than flee. As a result it’s a major attraction for tourists, conservationists, and trophy hunters–it’s the biggest, baddest predator that most Americans will ever get a chance to see. (To recognize it, look for the hump on its shoulders–the grizzly can range from brown to black to grey, but even if it’s the same shade as a black bear, it’ll have that hump.) It’s also considered endangered, having been eliminated from the entire southern part of its range. The grizzly used to be found throughout the western USA, as far east as Missouri and south to Mexico, but now it’s restricted to a few pockets in Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as British Columbia, Alberta, and the northern territories in Canada.
The spirit bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), though it looks like a polar bear and lives in brown bear territory, is actually neither: it’s a subspecies of American black bear. Bears as a rule have a wider array of color morphs than you’d think, considering so many of them have colors in their names–brown bears, for example, are sometimes red or grey or black or blonde. The spirit bear is notable for a coat somewhere between white and cream. A comparatively high percentage of the spirit bear population, about 10 percent, has this light, pristine coat. The spirit bear lives along the British Columbia coast, and is protected in BC’s Great Bear Rainforest preserve. But its protection existed before the nation of Canada even existed; the spirit bear is prominent in the oral traditions of the First Nations people from the area, and even when Europeans and Asians came to British Columbia, the locals tended to protect and hide the spirit bears from the outsiders. So why are so many of this particular black bear subspecies white? Unlike other American black bears, most of the spirit bear’s diet comes from fish. Studies have shown that the white bears have a higher success rate with fishing than black bears, since they’re less visible from the perspective of the fish during daytime. The gene that causes the white color morph is recessive, so it’s rare in the other black bear population–but since it provides a hunting benefit to this specific subspecies, it’s remained more common. That said, it’s estimated that there are only about 400-1,000 spirit bears in the world. Check out this National Geographic story from a couple years ago for more on spirit bears.
The giant panda is probably the most distinctive-looking bear in the world and also one of the most endangered, which has led to its becoming sort of a symbol of the conservation movement. It’s also one of the most frustrating animals to try to save, as its diet is absurd and it seems to have little interest in reproducing. The panda, like all bears, has a digestive system designed for an omnivore’s diet–and yet the panda eats almost exclusively bamboo. Bamboo is a grass; it has hardly any nutritional value, barely any protein or calories, so the panda is pretty much constantly exhausted. It has to eat enormous amounts of bamboo to sustain its large body (well, medium-sized for a bear, but large for a bamboo-eater), which means it defecates about 40 times a day. Its entire life is about doing as little as possible, since it gains so little energy from its diet. It avoids hills. It avoids social interaction. It sits down whenever possible and sleeps as much as it can get away with. That means it has an exceedingly low birthrate–who can bother seducing a mate when all you eat is grass? In captivity, especially, pandas seem to lose all interest in mating. That said, the panda is an endlessly fascinating animal! It behaves so little like other bears that it was considered part of the raccoon family for years, though DNA testing has confirmed that it is a “true bear.” There’s been continual debate about whether the panda is actually a bear; currently, the majority belief is that it is an especially primitive but true bear. But it’s not closely related to any other bear species, and not at all closely related to the red panda, which is not a bear. It’s specialized for its diet, boasting a protruding bone known as a “pseudo-thumb” that enables the bear to grip bamboo, something no other bear could manage. It remains incredibly endangered, with an estimated 2,000 in the wild.
The American black bear is the bear most familiar to Americans who don’t live in the Rocky Mountain or extreme northwestern regions of the country. It’s the most widespread of all North American bears, but it’s actually not closely related to the brown or polar bears–it’s fairly similar morphologically to the Asian black bear and a bit less so to the sun bear, but it has a behavior all its own. I would venture to call the American black bear the friendliest of all bears. A medium-sized bear, the American black bear has a few different-colored subspecies: the cinnamon bear is rusty-colored, the glacier bear is bluish-silver, the spirit bear is white, and the Florida black bear has a distinctive white patch on its chest, to name a few. It lives in pretty much any forested area of North America. The American black bear is about 85 percent vegetarian, preferring fruits and berries and leaves to the underground shoots of some of its cousins. It’ll eat fish and carrion and smal vertebrates, but it’s not an avid hunter. It is, however, an excellent climber and swimmer, and it can often be seen splashing around in rivers for fun. And it’s one of the most dexterous of all bears, being able to open twist-off jars despite having no opposable thumbs. It’s no danger to humans at all, really; it tends to run away when surprised. At worst, it might yell, which is scary, because it’s very big, but not dangerous. It also likes to get drunk, which is an endearing quality in a bear. It’ll open and drink beers, and sometimes eat fermented apples for a little organic buzz.
It seems impossible that someone might think a bear is a member of the sloth family, but that’s what happened with the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), a smallish bear and native of India. The sloth bear is the first insectivorous bear on our list, specializing in termites, though it also adores honeycomb and a few kinds of fruits (mango, jackfruit, wood apple). They have very thick fur, despite being tropical animals, and have specializations for eating insects (a hard palate for crushing them, strong claws for digging, that kind of thing). They also have long floppy ears. Not sure why, but they are very cute ears. The sloth bear has a curious relationship with other animals, including humans. It’s preyed upon by tigers, sometimes, although tigers typically won’t mess with a sloth bear unless it can pounce without the bear realizing. It gets along fine with other bears–its range overlaps with the Asian black bear–but, for some reason, it is despised by elephants and rhinoceroses, which will charge sloth bears on sight. Nobody knows why. Sloth bears, being adorable shaggy creatures, were sometimes kept as pets by British military and also as trained “dancing bears” on the street in India. Yet in the wild, sloth bears are highly aggressive; they’ll attack humans without any real provocation, though they typically don’t hunt or eat them. Oh, and remember Baloo, from The Jungle Book? Baloo’s a sloth bear.
The sun bear is the smallest of all bears, which immediately bumps it up in the bear rankings–it can weigh as little as 60 pounds as an adult and there have been reports of sun bears being eaten by snakes (!). It lives in southeast Asia, from Yunnan province in China down to Borneo, and like many of the other tropical bears, is mostly insectivorous. But while the sloth bear specializes in termites, the sun bear earned the nickname “honey bear” for its great love of bees and beehives. Nobody knows much about the sun bears; they’re an ancient species, having changed little in eons. The Asian and American black bears, for example, are actually descendants of the sun bear. But scientists know little about their behavior in the wild, other than they are excellent climbers and have an absurdly long tongue. Also sometimes they all stand around like cool dudes.
You guys know about the polar bear, right? Very good bear. Here’s why the polar bear ranked so highly on this list: 1. It’s the only bear to spend most of its time at sea–so much time, in fact, that it’s sometimes considered a marine mammal, like a walrus. 2. It’s the largest bear in the world (though the Kodiak bear is tied, give or take). Matter of fact, if you consider it a terrestrial and not a marine animal, it’d be the largest terrestrial predator in the world. 3. It hunts seals by pouncing on them from ice floats. You try to do that. Bet you can’t. 4. In Svarlbard, an arctic territory controlled by Norway, it’s called Isbjørn, which means “ice bear” but sounds way cooler. 5. Its guard-hairs appear white or cream-colored but are actually clear. 6. It can smell a seal that’s a mile away, buried under three feet of snow. 7. This video.
Okay, so: the spectacled bear, maybe even more than the giant panda, is a fantastically weird creature. It’s the only bear native to South America, and it’s the only short-faced bear left in the world. Short-faced bears, also called tremarctine bears or running bears, were, up until about 15,000 years ago, the most common type of bear in the Americas and Europe. They were the apex predators of their territory, and may have been “kleptoparasites,” basically intimidating other large predators (dire wolves, saber-toothed tigers) into giving the bears their prey. All of the short-faced bears, which included the cave bear and Florida short-faced bear, were enormous, probably the largest carnivores on the planet at that time. And now they’re all dead. Except the spectacled bear. The spectacled bear is a mid-sized bear, technically the largest carnivore in South America, though it mostly eats plants and fruits (fruits, cactus, bamboo, orchid bulbs). It’s also mainly arboreal, most other bears–it flees from humans and any theoretical predators (jaguars may sometimes attempt to bring down a spectacled bear) by running up into the treetops. Its skull shape is very different from other bears, as you might expect from the fact that it’s a short-faced bear: its snout is shorter and rounder than any living bear. The name comes from its distinctive facial coloration, which sometimes (but not always) makes it look like the bear is wearing glasses. There’s nothing else like it on the planet.