Lesson One: What Makes a Bear a Bear?

FWClogoSmallThe Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) is the only subspecies of bear native to Florida. The first black bear was described in Florida in 1896 and was called the “Everglades bear.”

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Photo courtesy of Bruce Britt

Florida black bears are a subspecies of the American black bear, and differ genetically and physically from their other American black bear relatives such as the Louisiana black bear and the Eastern black bear. Before European settlement of Florida, an estimated 11,000 black bears roamed the state and today at least 4,000 can be found throughout the state. In 1974, the Florida black bear was listed as a state threatened species, but in 2012 it was removed from the state’s threatened species list. However, the Florida black bear is still protected by Florida Statute 68A-4.009.

As is the case with most species of bears, many misconceptions exist about the Florida black bear. Although black bears are descended from meat-eating (carnivore) dog relatives, 80 percent of the Florida black bear’s diet actually consists of plant matter, especially fruits, nuts, and berries. Thus, Florida black bears are true omnivores. Florida black bears are also generally shy and non-aggressive. While uncommon, there have been incidents of humans being harmed by Florida black bears.

Lesson 1 thumbIn this Lesson One: What Makes a Bear a Bear? students will observe and describe similarities and differences in the anatomy of the Florida black bear and the Florida panther.

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The first bears appeared in Europe about four to five million years ago. Unlike their toe-walking (digitigrade) canine relatives, bears walk on the flat soles of their feet like humans (plantigrade). Rather than tearing and shredding food like their canine relatives, bears crush and grind their food. Although many large mammals that once thrived in Florida, such as the plains bison and the Florida red wolf, are now extinct in the state, the Florida black bear and the Florida panther still survive. In southwest Florida, the Florida panther and the Florida black bear share portions of the same habitat. With extensive, long-term conservation efforts, these two unique and magnificent mammals are once again beginning to thrive in the state.

Lesson Summary:

Key Question: How are bears different from other animals?

Main Topic: Major distinguishing characteristics of bears

Format: Observation and writing activity

Description: Students compare and contrast pictures of Florida black bear and Florida panther Lesson 1_PantherSMbodies, including skulls, teeth and feet, and use their observations to determine the major distinguishing features of bears.

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