In case you hadn’t heard already, September is Bear Necessities Month, a campaign run by WSPA to help raise awareness of the plight of bears and raise vital funds towards their work protecting bears around the world. Here at ARKive, we couldn’t help but be captivated by the campaign, and decided it was the perfect opportunity to celebrate our beautiful bears.
Bears belong to the family Ursidae and there are eight different species living today, which occur from the frozen Arctic to the forests of South America.
The biggest and perhaps the best known of all the bears, the polar bear is the largest living land carnivore, with adult males growing up to 2.6 metres in length. A formidable predator, the polar bear shows some amazing adaptations to Arctic life and is able to detect prey that are almost a kilometre away and up to a metre under the compacted snow, using its heightened sense of smell. Although they mainly feed on seals, polar bears will sometimes tackle much larger prey including walruses.
However, not all bears have such a meaty diet. Although the giant panda is technically considered a carnivore (as a member of the order carnivora) and has been known to scavenge on meat if it finds a carcass, it generally feeds almost exclusively on a diet of bamboo. Bamboo is a plant with such poor nutritional value that an adult giant panda must spend around 14 hours a day feeding, now that’s quite some picnic!
The American black bear is the most abundant bear in the world, and the species that gave rise to our most treasured of childhood toys, the teddy bear. The species name however, is a bit of a misnomer. While most populations in the west of the American black bear’s range have black fur, in the east, many populations have lighter cinnamon or yellow-brown coats. In addition, some populations found along the pacific coast have grey-blue fur, while in British Colombia, around ten percent of the population have an entirely white coat.
A close relative of the American black bear, the Asiatic black bear is similar in appearance, but has a crescent-shaped cream marking on the chest, which has led to this species being called the ‘moon bear’ in some areas. Sadly for these beautiful bears, in China individuals have been taken from the wild to be kept in captivity as a source of bile for traditional medicine.
Moving on from the ‘moon bear’, we have the world’s smallest bear species, the Malayan sun bear. Like the Asiatic black bear, the Malayan sun bear has a distinct chest patch from which its name arises. Interestingly, it has the longest tongue of all bear species! A rare species, this bear is also the world’s least studied bear, although like most bear species, it is known to be an opportunistic omnivore, using its long tongue to eat termites and ants, insect larvae, honey and a large variety of fruits.
The bear with the largest range of all is the brown bear, also known as the grizzly. Perhaps surprisingly, the brown bear is one of the world’s most widely distributed terrestrial mammals. While today the strongholds for this species are found in northern regions, mostly within Russia, Canada and Alaska, up until the mid-1880s the brown bear occurred as far south as North Africa and, until the 1960s, was also found in Mexico. In addition, during the Middle Ages, populations were found in mainland Europe, including the British Isles.
The spectacled bear is the only bear to occur in South America, and holds the title of the second largest terrestrial mammal on the continent. Named for the light patterned markings on its face, little is known about this shy and elusive species, although it was the inspiration behind one of the most popular fictional bears of all time, Paddington.
And finally, last but by no means least, we have the sloth bear. This small, shaggy Asian species is unique among bears in that it feeds almost entirely upon insects. Although considered Vulnerable today according to the IUCN Red List, it was reported that sloth bears were once so numerous that they were easily speared from horseback. Nowadays, populations have benefited where they occur within reserves established to protect other more high profile species, such as tigers and elephants.
Will you be doing anything for Bear Necessities Month? Take a look at the WSPA website for activity ideas and let us know how you get on, we would love to hear from you.
And be sure to take a look at all these bear species on ARKive too, for more interesting facts, photographs and films.
Claire Lewis, ARKive Media Researcher