Bears are cute and cuddly as stuffed cloth playmates, but in the wild, bears are extremely powerful and can be very dangerous animals, especially if they are startled by intruders. Bears have no remaining natural enemies, other than humans and one another. One swat from the powerful foreleg of a brown bear or black bear can break the neck of a deer! In spite of their large size and lumbering walk, bears can run very fast, up to 25 miles per hour, which is faster than the world record for humans in the 100 meter sprint!! Climbing a tree can protect a human from an adult brown bear, but not from black bears, which are excellent tree climbers themselves. Since “black” bears can often be brown in color, tree climbing may not be the best choice for a human escape route. For those persons who might be foolish enough to linger around a bear in an attempt to distinguish between a dangerous black bear that can climb trees and the more dangerous adult brown bear which cannot, the brown bear has a hump behind its neck between its shoulders and much longer claws. Making noise while walking through the woods is the best way to avoid surprising a normally shy bear into action.
There are eight species of bears alive in the world today: the American black bear, Asiatic black bear, brown bear, giant panda, polar bear, sloth bear, spectacled bear, and sun bear. The koala is not a bear at all, but a marsupial, as is the type of panda which is not the giant panda. The grizzly bear is another name for the brown bear, originally describing its grizzled coloration, resulting from its fur being lighter in color at its ends. The oldest bear species is the giant panda, evolving from the same ancestor as the raccoon 18 to 22 million years ago. The spectacled bear is the second oldest species, also evolving 10 to 15 million years ago from the same family as the giant panda. The other six types of bears are closely related to each other. The youngest type of bear is the polar bear, which is believed by scientists to have evolved from the brown bear in the last 3 million years.
Bears have an amazing sense of smell, much more sensitive than a wolf’s sniffing ability. The long snout of a bear contains scent sensing mucous membranes which are one hundred times larger than the human nose. The male brown bear roams throughout an area of from 100 to 400 square miles, following very faint scents.
Although bear cubs stay with their mothers for up to two and a half years and with each other for one to three years more, bears lead basically a solitary existence. It is rare for two male bears to be in the same vicinity. They communicate their presence to other bears by leaving their own scent on trees against which they rub their backs (bears do not do this rubbing merely to scratch an itch). Pandas do handstands against the trunks of trees and rub their backs upside down!
Bears living in temperate climates have dormant periods during the winter months, when they burrow into dens and live off of the fat stored in their bodies during their five to eight months of feeding on vegetation, fruits, insects, small mammals and fish. Their pulse rates drop to 8 to10 beats per minute during this dormant period, but they are not in a true hibernation state, since they can be easily awakened. Awakening bears during their dormant period is a very bad idea. That is when they are the crankiest!