Welcome to the online world of black bear education. There are two ways to use this website for learning about black bears. The first is simply by exploring the website, watching the movies, and reviewing the text and images.
However, the second way offers specialized classroom educational impact for teachers and students within the downloadable Understanding Black Bears Curriculum. It’s a self-contained computer program that was developed by educators exclusively for use in K-8 classrooms. It’s full of quizzes, puzzles, computer games, special bear movies and tons of interactive learning within 29 lesson activities.
To get the entire Understanding Black Bears Curriculum into your classroom you’ll need to download the full program. Just follow the link and the instructions. Once it’s on your computer, anyone can access the Student’s Section of the program to explore all the fun and information. However, the Teacher’s Section that contains all the lessons and other classroom teaching materials requires a Teacher’s Access code. So if you’re a teacher, just follow the Teacher Registration instructions on the Curriculum download page.
With black bear populations at a 100-year high across most of the nation, there’s never been a greater need and interest to educate our current and next generation about understanding black bears. It’s important to our citizens, wildlife managers, public safety agencies, students, teachers, and even the bears.
If you’re a student, explore this site for videos and materials that you can use for your science projects. Or, to share more fun learning with your friends, ask your teachers to download the entire Understanding Black Bears Curriculum to explore in your classroom.
The downloadable curriculum also contains a special Teacher’s Section that has everything a K-8 classroom needs for teaching the 29 lesson activities. If you’re an educator, see the K-8 Curriculum overview for Correlations and Teacher Quickstart overview. So begin exploring, learning, and enjoying the science and social aspects of sharing our landscape with this amazing omnivore – the black bear.
Here’s your first quiz… See if you can guess what this black bear is doing?
- Waving Hello?
- Standing to see better?
- Scent marking the tree branches?
You’ll soon discover the answer and so much more by exploring this bear ed web site. The mysterious world of the black bear education awaits you… after you compare some bear species.
Various Bear Species
The fossil record indicates that the family Ursidae (bears) evolved from small, dog-like carnivorous animals that lived in Europe. Today, there are eight living species of bears:
- Spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus)
- Giant panda (Ailluropoda melanoleuca)
- Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus)
- American black bear (Ursus americanus)
- Polar bear (Ursus maritimus)
- Malaysian sun bear (Ursus malayanus)
- Sloth bear (Ursus ursinus)
- Grizzly (or brown) bear (Ursus arctos).
Three native bear species inhabit North America; the American black bear, the polar bear, and the brown bear. Each exhibit characteristic differences. Black bears are expert tree-climbers, polar bears are exceptional swimmers, and grizzly bears are champion diggers.
Most people are familiar with the brown bear subspecies, the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). Grizzly bears can climb trees, although their skills are limited. Polar bears and grizzly bears are the most aggressive species towards humans. The black bear is the most abundant and widespread. All three North American bear species are large mammals with strong jaws, heavy paws and claws, large noses, small eyes and ears, and short tails. They have developed an exceptional sense of smell to help locate food. They also have good hearing. Although untested, scientists believe bears and humans have similar visual capabilities. All three bear species can run faster than 30 miles per hour, although they quickly overheat due to their massive size.
Range - The largest in size – but fewest in numbers – polar bears inhabit the northern Arctic regions. In some areas, their range overlaps with grizzly bear and black bear ranges. Polar bears most likely evolved from brown bears. Although rare, grizzly bears and polar bears can breed and produce fertile offspring.
Description - Weighing up to 1800 pounds, the polar bear is the largest of the three North American bear species. Polar bears’ heads are longer and narrower than grizzly bears’ or black bears’. Their noses are very large and their small, round ears are fur-covered, inside and out. The front legs of polar bears appear slightly bowlegged and pigeon-toed. Their back legs are long.
Polar bears’ claws are shorter and more strongly curved than grizzly bears’, and larger and heavier than black bears’ claws. Polar bear teeth are adapted for grabbing prey and shearing meat and hide. Unlike grizzly bear teeth, their teeth are not well equipped for chewing vegetation.
Adaptations for Survival - Classified as marine mammals, polar bears exhibit specific adaptations to an icy, aquatic environment. A thick two- to four-inch layer of fat, or blubber, helps insulate polar bears from freezing temperatures and ice-cold water. It also helps them float. During the summer, when food is limited, blubber acts as a nutritional reserve. Polar bears’ dense, thick undercoats are protected by long guard hairs that stick together when wet, forming waterproof barriers. Although their coats appear white, each individual hair is actually a clear, hollow tube. These hollow hairs fill with air, holding in body heat and insulating from the cold. It is debatable if these hairs also help keep polar bears warm by funneling solar radiation to their black skin. At times, polar bear fur may appear yellowish due to staining or impurities that accumulate inside the hollow hairs. Polar bears are excellent swimmers, reaching speeds of up to six miles per hour. They have been observed swimming 100 miles from land. Their large, partially webbed forepaws function as paddles while their hind paws act as rudders. To prevent water from entering their ears when diving, their ear canals close. On land, polar bears’ large, flat feet help them shovel snow to create dens. Small papillae and little indentations on the footpads provide traction. The bottoms of the paws are fur-covered.
Male polar bears spend the winter on the pack ice. Pregnant females, however, dig out a snow cave early in winter. The snow covers them as winter progresses. While in their dens, they give birth and nourish their new cubs. This period of time may last eight months. During this time, they survive off their fat reserves. Like other North American bears, polar bears may wake during hibernation in response to environmental or physical stimuli. When the cubs are approximately three months old, the family emerges from the den. Although pregnant female polar bears enter dens for the entire winter, any polar bear may create a shelter to avoid storms, extreme temperatures, or periods of poor hunting.
Diet - Polar bears are primarily carnivores, or meat eaters. They usually prey on ringed seals and bearded seals. They have several hunting strategies. Polar bears may stalk seals by slowly creeping toward them on the ice. They also “still hunt” seals by lying in wait near the seals’ breathing holes and quickly grabbing them with their sharp front teeth when they come up for air. Polar bears eat only the fat rich skin and blubber of the seals. Polar bears also prey on beluga whales and walruses. When the ice melts and polar bears cannot hunt these meat sources, they may eat voles, carrion, seaweed, berries, bird eggs, and grasses. Like other bears, polar bears eat human garbage.
Threats to Population - Infrequently, polar bears are killed by walruses or in fights with other bears. However, human activities such as oil exploration, climate change, habitat change, and hunting are some of the serious threats polar bears face.
AMERICAN BLACK BEAR
Range - The American black bear is the most widespread of the three North American bear species. Historically, black bears ranged from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from northern Mexico to the Arctic Circle. Today, the black bear is the only bear species living east of the Mississippi River.
Description - Black bears are often black in color with tan muzzles; occasionally they sport white markings on their chests. However, their coats can range from blonde to deep brown to blue-gray to white. Black-colored bears are more common in the East while brown-colored bears are more common in the West. Although rare, white and bluish-colored bears can occur in the Pacific Northwest.
Black bears are the smallest North American bear species. Across their range, adults vary greatly in size, shape, and color because of habitat differences, genetics, and food abundance. Black bears exhibit dramatic seasonal changes in their weight. In late summer and fall, black bears prepare for winter hibernation by consuming huge quantities of food. An adult that weighs 200 pounds in spring can weigh 300 pounds in the fall after months of gorging on fruits and nuts. During the winter, males and females den in tree cavities, excavated underground holes, or even above ground nests.
Habitat - Black bears prefer a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest habitat with a thick vegetative understory, but they are very adaptable. They live in swamps, arid landscapes, and urban-wildland interfaces. Black bears can survive in relatively close proximity to human developments.
Diet - Although classified as carnivores because of their canine teeth, black bears actually function as opportunistic omnivores. They consume both plant and animal matter. Approximately 85-95% of black bears’ diets consist of nuts, berries, acorns, roots, and grasses. Unlike many carnivores, black bears’ lips are not attached to their gums, a unique adaptation that makes it easier for them to forage for berries and other vegetation. Black bears also consume insects and, when available, may consume moose calves and deer fawns, carrion, and salmon. Black bears, with their relatively short, curved claws, excel at climbing trees. This adaptation increases their foraging opportunities.
Threats to Population - Few diseases trouble black bears, although their sugar-rich diet increases dental cavities. Threats to black bears include predators such as the grizzly bear; other black bears, especially older, dominant males; wolves, which may prey on cubs; and humans. Human impacts on black bear populations include habitat loss, vehicle collisions, hunting, poaching, and euthanasia of problem bears involved in human-bear encounters.
Range - Like the black bear, the grizzly bear once inhabited wide regions of the American landscape. Grizzly bears can live in a wide range of habitats including tundra, coniferous and hardwood forests, and sub-alpine mountain areas. However, extensive undisturbed areas of land are necessary for grizzly bear survival. Four hundred years of human expansion has displaced grizzlies into the remote northwestern regions of the continent. Most grizzly bears live in Alaska and Canada. In the lower 48 states, isolated populations survive in parts of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington.
Description - Some grizzly bears are the size of big black bears, while others may be as large as medium-sized polar bears. Because of their salmon rich diet, coastal grizzly bears (also referred to as brown bears) grow larger than their inland counterparts and can easily weigh over 1000 pounds. Grizzly bear fur ranges in color from buff to dark brown. Coats are often white-tipped, especially on the back, resulting in a frosted, or “grizzled” appearance. Humans are less tolerant of grizzly bears than black bears, primarily due to the aggressive-defensive behavior they may exhibit toward humans. The evolution of aggressive behavior in grizzly bears may be tied to their habitat. When grizzly bears spread out from forests into treeless areas such as tundra and grasslands, they gained new food sources. Whereas female black bears often protect their cubs by having them climb trees, female grizzly bears with cubs compensate for their lack of cover by responding to perceived threats with real or bluff attacks.
Diet - Grizzly bears are omnivores, primarily eating vegetation such as roots, bulbs, berries, grasses, and sedges. Grizzly bears’ prominent shoulder muscles, along with their long, front claws, are adaptations for digging up plant roots. They also eat insects and fish. Like black bears and polar bears, grizzly bears can be attracted to human food sources such as garbage and pet food. In some areas, grizzly bears prey on caribou, moose, and elk.
Like black bears, grizzly bears dramatically increase their food consumption in preparation for winter hibernation. Both sexes dig dens as winter approaches. Grizzly bears often position these dens at the bases of trees. A common misconception is that bears den to avoid cold weather. Denning is believed to be a survival adaptation that allows bears to survive times of limited food availability.
Threats to Population - Habitat destruction is the primary threat to grizzly bear survival. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service seeks to restore grizzly bear populations in suitable habitat in isolated northwest regions of the lower 48 states. Grizzly bear hunting is illegal in the lower 48 states. Unfortunately, hunters seeking black bears may occasionally misidentify and kill grizzly bears by mistake.
* Please see the Compare Bears Books and Websites in the complete Understanding Black Bear Curriculum for all the additional information.