National Parks Depot Blog » animal behavior
While reflecting upon last week's post where we discussed bear safety, we realized that there was so much more we wanted to say on the topic. We dug deep into safety precautions and touched on important preventative measures, but we began to wonder just how many people really know the difference between the North American black bear (Ursus americanus) and the North American brown bear (Ursus arctos)―a difference that could mean life or death in a survival situation. Although it's true that bear attacks are quite rare, it's crucial to understand how bear behavior varies between species. Just like humans, animals have personalities and predictable tendencies that ought to be recognized in order to avoid unnecessary conflict and to, in turn, peacefully co-exist.
Black bears, despite their name, are not always black. (Nor are brown bears always brown.) Even the ones that actually are black will often times have hues of brown in their coat. Their colors range from black to brown, and sometimes even hints of blue and white will be evident. Brown bears, more commonly known as grizzly or Kodiak bears depending on their region, are known to have various shades of brown in their fur, and some may even be a light blonde. For this reason, fur color is not nearly as reliable as body structure when it comes to differentiating between bears. Black bears and brown bears each have distinctive features that should be learned, memorized, and stored in the back of your mind for future reference.
Brown bears are typically larger than black bears, with a prominent shoulder hump that makes them easier to identify. This protruding muscle mass aids them in digging and gives them extra strength for bursts of speed and as they run to catch their prey. (Grizzly bears have been known to reach speeds of up to 35mph! An indelicate reminder of why it would be foolish to try to outrun one, should you ever come face to face.) Unlike their black bear cousins who have a straighter and more sleek profile, brown bears have a "dished" face and shorter, fuzzier ears. They also have longer, straighter claws, whereas black bears have shorter, curved claws, making them excellent tree climbers.
Physical features aside, there are also many behavioral differences between bear species. In general, bears are solitary creatures, with the exception of mothers watching over their cubs. And unless they see or smell food on you, they will try to avoid human interaction. If you were to encounter a black bear in the wild, it would most likely retreat and leave you as you were. On the other hand, a grizzly bear is more likely to react aggressively if it views you as a threat. (Yet another reason why it would be beneficial to know exactly who you're dealing with!)
If a bear locks eyes on you, quickly ask yourself what kind of bear it is. Do you see a visible shoulder hump? How big are its ears? What shape is its nose? If you find yourself facing a black bear that does not retreat and you need to defend yourself, fight back with all you have. On the contrary, if you find yourself face to face with a grizzly that won't back away, immediately drop to the ground face-down, cover the back of your neck with your hands, and play dead. Do not attempt to fight a grizzly bear―you won't live to tell the tale.
Okay... Are you ready to test your knowledge? Take this bear identification quiz and see if you can tell the difference!
Bears are deeply misunderstood creatures. Shy, curious, and rather predictable, they are not the ferocious beasts they are often portrayed to be.
It should come as no surprise to learn that bear encounters occur often in many of our national parks. Despite the fact that bear attacks are actually pretty rare―statistically speaking, your chances of being injured by a bear are approximately 1 in 2.1 million―it's always wise to prep yourself on what to do in the event of an unexpected encounter. By understanding bear behavior and distinguishing between different types of bears, you will not only keep yourself safe, but avoid disrupting the natural environment that they live in.
More often than not, bears wander into towns and campsites in search of food, typically when their usual food source has been depleted or if they have grown accustomed to having access to human food. To prevent unwanted visitors on your next camping trip, it is extremely important that all of your food is properly stored in bear-resistant containers or storage boxes. Keep in mind that this also includes securing garbage bags and locking up scented items, such as toothpaste or scented soap. Never leave these items in your car―bears are attracted to anything with an odor and will have no problem breaking into your vehicle if they think there's food inside! By keeping a clean camp and following the food storage regulations provided by the National Park Service, you will be doing your part to maintain a safe and comfortable atmosphere for everyone.
Prevention is a major key to bear safety, however, you may find yourself in a situation where it's too late for "should have"s. To avoid surprising a bear by catching it off guard, make your presence known by speaking loudly and waving your arms. (Not too frantically―you want the bear to notice you, not view you as a threat.) If the bear still has not caught on to your presence, you may find it helpful to create noise by breaking sticks. It is common for bears to stand up on their hind legs to get a better glimpse of their surroundings; do not mistake this characteristic body language as aggressive. Remain calm, and the bear will likely retreat. Whatever you do, never ever run away or attempt to escape by climbing a tree! Bears, particularly black bears, have evolved to be excellent climbers. While they will usually avoid human interaction, you don't want to test them. Some people choose to carry bear pepper spray as an emergency deterrent; a product that has been proven to be the safest and most effective means of repelling a potential attack.
Overall, being bear aware comes down to two things: having an understanding of bear behavior and having common sense. Come prepared, be smart about your decisions, and treat the animals you meet with respect. The more educated you are on the subject, the safer you will feel the next time you see a bear in the wild.