Bears are some of the most charismatic creatures on Earth, from Paddington bear to polar bears. Here are 10 of the most incredible facts about these furry mammals
1. Bears are as intelligent as great apes
But it may surprise you to know that some scientists rank bears up there with the great apes, even boasting the same intelligence as a three-year-old human child. Their intelligence can be demonstrated purely by how curious they are, and they will often stand on their hind legs to get a better view or have a sniff of their surroundings. They love exploring and finding objects to play with and treats to eat. We often look to signs of tool use as a sign of intelligence, and it’s a skill bears certainly aren’t lacking. The use of sticks and branches to scratch their backs is often observed, and even more complex problem solving was seen in the grizzly bear who used a wooden plank as a bridge to cross a patch of bramble and retrieve a coke can it had spotted. Despite all this, they are lacking spatial awareness, not always taking into account what is going on around them, and they can be easily distracted by food. Once they have found a meal they become engrossed, completely oblivious to their surroundings. That’s why it’s best to make your presence known when walking through the woods, so you don’t catch a bear unawares.
2. They aren’t named after their colour
Brown bears can sometimes have black fur, and black bears can be brown, or even white (they’re called Kermode or Spirit bears). The white colouration is due to a recessive gene.
3. Polar bears aren’t white
Polar bears are instantly recognisable for their vividly white coats. But believe it or not, they aren’t actually white – their fur contains no pigment at all. Each hair is transparent and hollow, and only appears white as it reflects and scatters visible light. As a result, polar bears seem to us masters of disguise, but not every animal sees them this way. While their fur reflects visible light, it absorbs ultraviolet light, making the polar bears appear black to animals able to see UV light. Reindeer, for example, are the only mammals able to see UV light. They can spot the bears from a mile away, making it extremely difficult for a polar bear to catch a venison dinner. The structure of their fur is perhaps why, when in captivity, polar bears can have a yellow or green tinge, as algae grows in the hollow spaces in warmer environments. Beneath the not-so-white fur, polar bears have black skin. As black reflects the least amount of light, and therefore heat, it is probable this helps the bears stay warm on the snow.
4. Russians took guns into space for protection against bears
Soviet cosmonauts were so afraid of bears they took a shotgun into space with them just in case they found themselves stranded in bear country when they landed back on Earth.
5. A grizzly’s bite-force is strong enough to crush a bowling ball
When it comes to bite-force, the grizzly bear is one of the strongest animals alive. Bears have 42 teeth, which is ten more than the average human. The sharp canines are larger than those of a tiger, despite most bears having an omnivorous diet. It’s not just the teeth that are equipped to deal some serious damage. Bears have incredibly strong jaw muscles, allowing them to bite down and crush bone with ease. The bite of a grizzly bear is so strong it measures 1250psi (pressure per square inch) – more than enough force to crush a bowling ball. By comparison, humans have a bite force of just 150psi. It’s little wonder the grizzly bear Ursus horribilis translates to ‘terrifying bear’; although it looks cute it is incredibly powerful.
6. Bears come in all sizes
While the largest species of bear is the polar bear, the smallest one is the sun bear. Standing at just 1.2 metres (four feet) tall when standing, these little bears love seeking out beehives, earning them the nickname ‘honey bear’ across Southeast Asia.
8. Bears don’t hibernate
Bears are possibly one of the most famous cases of hibernation, but whether they do actually hibernate is up for debate. True hibernators such as ground squirrels, bats and mouse lemurs reduce their body temperature to a degree close to freezing, whereas bears only reduce their body temperature by around 10 degrees. Their metabolic rate also does not slow down quite as much as true hibernators and, also unlike true hibernators, they are able to wake up quickly and easily to respond to threats. So if bears aren’t hibernating, where do they go in winter? Well, they certainly slow down, that’s for sure. Bears spend the autumn eating lots and increasing their body fat to ensure they have the energy reserves to see them through the cold weather when food is scarce. Many scientists believe that their period of winter inactivity is more like a winter lethargy, or torpor, as it is more like an extended nap than a deep sleep.
7. A bear fought in WW2
Wojtek was taken on by the Polish army between 1942 and 1963; originally a Private he was eventually promoted to a Corporal. The bear helped with carrying shells and ammunition to the front line during the Second World War.
9. Grizzly bears eat 20,000 calories a day
Big animals come with big appetites. To survive, a grizzly bear has to eat 20,000 calories a day. In a more human context, this equates to around 20 full English breakfasts every day. Bears mostly live on a diet of nuts, berries, carrion and some fish when they can find it. These foods are all much lower in calories than our greasy breakfasts, so the search for their next snack never ends.
10. Panda bears spend 16 hours a day eating
Pandas will eat around 20 different varieties of bamboo, but it is difficult to digest and contains very little in the way of nutrients. To make sure they are getting their daily calorie intake, panda bears have to consume around 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of bamboo every day. Eating so much plant matter is definitely time consuming, and can take 16 hours of continual grazing for a panda to get its fill.
Discover more amazing animal facts in the latest issue of World of Animals. It’s available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of World of Animals magazine, make sure you subscribe today!