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Brown bear
Temporal range: Middle Pleistocene-Holocene
Brown bear.jpg
Brown bear (U. arctos) in Hallo Bay, Katmai National Park, Alaska
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Binomial name
Ursus arctos
Linnaeus, 1758
Ursus arctos range map.svg
Brown bear range map

The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is a large bear living in much of northern Eurasia and North America. It is smaller than the polar bear, but is the largest carnivore which lives entirely on the land. There are several recognized subspecies.

The brown bear's range has shrunk, but it is still listed as a least concern species by the IUCN. Its total population is about 200,000. As of 2012, this and the American black bear are the only bear species not classified as threatened by the IUCN. However, many of the southern Asian subspecies are highly endangered. The smallest subspecies, the Himalayan brown bear, is critically endangered. It lives in just 2% of its former range, and poachers hunt it for its parts. The Marsican brown bear in central Italy is believed to have a population of just 30 to 40 bears.

The brown bear's main range includes parts of Russia, Central Asia, China, Canada, the United States (mostly Alaska), Scandinavia and the Carpathian region (especially Romania), Anatolia, and Caucasus. The brown bear is a national and state animal in several European countries. It is the most widely distributed of all bears.

Brown bears are omnivores.

Brown bears are apex predators.

They eat berries, apples, honey, fish, insects, worms, nuts, grasses, leaves, carrion, rodents and rabbits. Brown bears even eat hoofed animals such as deer, moose, reindeer, bison and sheeps.

Taxonomy and evolution

Masha and the Bear 2019 stamp of Russia 3a
Masha and the Bear a 2019 stamp from Russia

Brown bears are thought to have evolved from Ursus etruscus. The oldest fossils occur in China from about 0.5 million years ago. They entered Europe about 250,000 years ago, and North Africa shortly after. Brown bear remains from the Pleistocene period are common in the British Isles, where it is thought they outcompeted cave bears.

The species entered Alaska 100,000 years ago, though they did not move south until 13,000 years ago. It is thought brown bears were unable to migrate south until the extinction of the much larger Arctodus simus.


As of 2005, 16 subspecies have been recognized. The subspecies have been listed as follows:

Brown Bear Subspecies
Subspecies Name Image Distribution Description
Ursus arctos arctosEurasian brown bear Ours des pyrenees aspe 2002.jpg Europe, Caucasus, Siberia (except the east) and Mongolia A predominantly dark colored (rarely light colored), moderately-sized subspecies with dark claws, the Eurasian browns occurring in Siberia are larger than their European counterparts, as they are hunted less. Where found in Europe, primarily a forest creature
Ursus arctos alascensis Alaska
Ursus arctos beringianus – Kamchatka brown bear (or Far Eastern brown bear) Brown-bear-in-spring.jpg Kamchatka Peninsula and Paramushir Island This is a very large, dark colored form. Light colored forms are encountered less than in European-Siberian subspecies. The claws are dark; it is thought to be the ancestor of U. a. middendorffi.
Ursus arctos californicus – California golden bear (extinct)
Ursus arctos collaris – East Siberian brown bear Ucollaris.jpg East Siberia from the Yenisei River to the Altai Mountains, also occurs in northern Mongolia A predominantly dark form, it is intermediate in size between U. a. arctos and U. a. beringianus, with a proportionately larger skull.
Ursus arctos crowtheri – Atlas bear (extinct)
Ursus arctos dalli
Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly bear Grizzly Bear Yellowstone.jpg Western Canada, Alaska, and the northwestern United States, historically existed in Great Plains Grizzlies are identified by a medium to dark brown coat with gray, or "grizzled" tips on the fur. Smaller than the coastal bear, a grizzly typically weighs up to 800 lb (364 kg) in inland areas, with bears in the Yukon region weighing as little as 350 lb (159 kg). Coastal bears may be nearly twice a mountain grizzly's weight. Highly adaptable: can live in montane pine forests, temperate rainforest, arid scrubland, and prairie.
Ursus arctos isabellinusHimalayan brown bear Ursus arctos isabellinus (in Perm Zoo).jpg Nepal, Pakistan, and Northern India Having a reddish-brown or sandy coat color, this bear is smaller than most other brown bears found on the Asian continent.
Ursus arctos lasiotus – Ussuri brown bear (or Amur brown bear, black grizzly or horse bear) Ursus arctos lasiotus - Beijing Zoo 3.JPG Russia: Southern Kuril Islands, Sakhalin, Maritime territory, and the Ussuri/Amur river region south of the Stanovoy Range, China: northeastern Heilongjiang, Japan: Hokkaidō This bear is thought to be the ancestor of U. a. horribilis.
Ursus arctos middendorffiKodiak bear Bear Square.JPG Kodiak, Afognak, Shuyak Islands (Alaska) This is the largest subspecies of brown bear, with other coastal brown bears reaching as big.
Ursus arctos nelsoni – Mexican grizzly bear (extinct) Northern Mexico, including Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Sonora, southwestern United States including southern ranges of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico This bear is believed extinct due to cattle ranching in both the United States and Mexico. Distinct in its ability to survive arid conditions, it could live in both montane pine forests of Mexico and canyonlands of Sonoran Desert.
Ursus arctos pruinosusTibetan blue bear Tibetan Blue Bear - Ursus arctos pruinosus - Joseph Smit crop.jpg Western China and Tibet This is a moderately-sized subspecies with long and shaggy fur. Both dark and light variants are encountered, with intermediate colors predominating. The fur around the neck is light, and forms a "collar". The skull is distinguished its relatively flattened choanae, an arch-like curve of the molar row and large teeth.
Ursus arctos sitkensis Baranof Island Appearing to be more closely related to the polar bear than to other brown bears, this species is called "clade I" by Waits, and others., and is part of the subspecies identified as U. a. sitkensis, by Hall and as U. a. dalli by Kurtén.
Ursus arctos stikeenensis
Ursus arctos syriacusSyrian brown bear Ursus arctos syriacus.jpg Occurs in the trans-Caucasus, Syria, Iraq,Turkey (Asia Minor), Iran, Afghanistan, western Himalayas and the Pamir-Alai and Tien Shan mountains, probable historical presence in Israel The Syrian is a light colored, moderate to small-sized subspecies with light claws.


Polar/brown bear hybrid at Osnabrück Zoo

A Grizzly–polar bear hybrid (known as a pizzly Bear or grolar bear) is a rare ursid hybrid resulting from a union of a brown bear and a polar bear. It has occurred both in captivity and in the wild. In 2006, the occurrence of this hybrid in nature was confirmed by testing the DNA of a strange-looking bear that had been shot in the Canadian arctic. Previously, the hybrid had been produced in zoos, and was considered a "cryptid".

Physical description

Brown bear claws are longer and less curved than those of black bears
Bear skull
Brown bear skull

When fully grown Brown bears are about 5–7 feet in length and can be almost 9 feet tall when they are standing.

Brown bears have very large and curved claws, those present on the forelimbs being longer than those on the hind limbs. They may reach 5 to 6 centimetres (2.0 to 2.4 in) and sometimes 7 to 10 centimetres (2.8 to 3.9 in) along the curve. They are generally dark with a light tip, with some forms having completely light claws. Brown bear claws are longer and straighter than those of American black bears. The claws are blunt, while those of a black bear are sharp.

Brown bears have very strong teeth. Although they have powerful jaws, brown bear jaws are incapable of breaking large bones with the ease of spotted hyenas.

Brown bears have long, thick fur, with a moderately long mane at the back of the neck. In India, brown bears can be reddish with silver tips, while in China, brown bears are bicolored with a yellow-brown or whitish cape across the shoulders. North American grizzlies can be dark brown (almost black) to cream (almost white) or yellowish brown. Black hairs usually have white tips. The winter fur is very thick and long, especially in northern subspecies, and can reach 11 to 12 centimetres (4 to 5 in) at the withers. The winter hairs are thin, yet rough to the touch. The summer fur is much shorter and sparser, and its length and density varies geographically.

Distribution and habitat

Brown bear seaguls
Brown bear at Brooks Falls

There are about 200,000 brown bears in the world. The largest populations are in Russia with 120,000, the United States with 32,500, and Canada with 21,750. About 95% of the brown bear population in the United States is in Alaska, though in the lower 48 states, they are repopulating slowly but steadily along the Rockies and the western Great Plains. The last Mexican brown bear was shot in 1960.

Bear and Salmon
Bear catching Salmon in Kuril Lake, Kamchatka, Russia

In Europe, there are 14,000 brown bears in ten fragmented populations, from Spain (estimated at only 20-25 animals in the Pyrenees in 2010, in a range shared between France, Spain and Andorra, and some 85-90 animals in Asturias, Cantabria, Galicia and León, in the Picos de Europa and adjacent areas in 2003 and some 100 animals in 2005) in the west, to Russia in the east, and from Sweden and Finland in the north to Romania (4000–5000), Bulgaria (900–1200), Slovakia (with about 600–800 animals), Slovenia (500-700 animals) and Greece (with about 200 animals) in the south. They are extinct in the British Isles, extremely threatened in France and Spain, and in trouble over most of Central Europe.

Brown Bear on a Romanian stamp

The Carpathian brown bear population of Romania is the largest in Europe outside Russia, estimated at 4,500 to 5,000 bears, although declining alarmingly due to overhunting. There is also a smaller brown bear population in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine (estimated at about 200 in 2005), Slovakia and Poland (estimated at about 100 in 2009 in the latter country). The total Carpathian population is estimated at about 8,000. Northern Europe is home to a large bear population, with an estimated 2,500 (range 2,350–2,900) in Sweden, about 1,600 in Finland, about 700 in Estonia and 70 in Norway. Another large and relatively stable population of brown bears in Europe, consisting of 2,500–3,000 individuals, is the Dinaric-Pindos (Balkans) population, with contiguous distribution in northeast Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece.

Brown bears were once native to Asia, the Atlas Mountains in Africa, Europe, and North America, but are now extinct in some areas, and their populations have greatly decreased in other areas. They prefer semiopen country, usually in mountainous areas.

Brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) standing
Brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) standing

Brown bears live in Alaska, east through the Yukon and Northwest Territories, south through British Columbia and through the western half of Alberta. Small populations exist in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of northwest Wyoming (with about 600 animals), the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem of northwest Montana (with about 750 animals), the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem of northwest Montana and northeast Idaho (with about 30–40 animals), the Selkirk Ecosystem of northeast Washington and northwest Idaho (with about 40–50 animals), and the North Cascades Ecosystem of northcentral Washington (with about 5–10 animals). These five ecosystems combine for a total of roughly 1,470 wild grizzlies still persisting in the contiguous United States. Unfortunately, these populations are isolated from each other, inhibiting any genetic flow between ecosystems. This poses one of the greatest threats to the future survival of the grizzly bear in the contiguous United States.

In Asia, brown bears are found in most of Russia, parts of the Middle East, and in a small area of Manchuria in China. They can also be found on the island of Hokkaidō in Japan, western China, and parts of North Korea, Afghanistan and India.

The population of brown bears in the Pyrenees mountain range between France and Spain is so low, estimated at 14 to 18, with a shortage of females, that bears, mostly female, from Slovenia were released in spring 2006 to reduce the imbalance and preserve the species' presence in the area, despite protests from French farmers.

A small population of brown bears (Ursus arctos marsicanus) still lives in central Italy (Apennine mountains, Abruzzo and Latium), with no more than 70 individuals, protected by strong laws, but endangered by the human presence in the area.

Brown Bear Cubs
Brown Bear Cubs

In Arctic areas, the potential habitat of the brown bear is increasing. The warming of that region has allowed the species to move farther north into what was once exclusively the domain of the polar bear. In non-Arctic areas, habitat loss is blamed as the leading cause of endangerment, followed by hunting.

North American brown bears, or grizzly bears, seem to prefer open landscapes, whereas in Eurasia they inhabit mostly dense forests. It is thought the Eurasian bears which colonized America were tundra-adapted. This is indicated by brown bears in the Chukotka Peninsula on the Asian side of Bering Strait, which are the only Asian brown bears to live year-round in lowland tundra like their North American cousins.


Syrian brown bear hybrid 05
Syrian brown bear

The brown bear is primarily nocturnal.

In the summer, it gains up to 180 kilograms (400 lb) of fat, on which it relies to make it through winter, when it becomes very lethargic. Although they are not full hibernators, and can be woken easily; both sexes like to den in a protected spot, such as a cave, crevice, or hollow log, during the winter months.

Brown bears are mostly solitary, although they may gather in large numbers at major food sources and form social hierarchies based on age and size. Adult male bears are particularly aggressive and are avoided by adolescent and subadult males. Female bears with cubs rival adult males in aggression, and are more intolerant of other bears than single females. Young adolescent males tend to be least aggressive, and have been observed in nonagonistic interactions with each other.

In his Great Bear Almanac, Gary Brown lists 11 different sounds bears produce in 9 different contexts. Sounds expressing anger or aggravation include growls, roars, woofs, champs and smacks, while sounds expressing nervousness or pain include woofs, grunts and bawls. Sows will bleat or hum when communicating with their cubs.


Grizzly Bear- Sow and cubs (5728173840)
Grizzly bear cubs often imitate their mothers closely

Brown bears mate from May to July. Cubs are born between January and March.

The average litter has one to four cubs, usually two. There have been cases of bears with five cubs, although females sometimes adopt stray cubs. Older females tend to give birth to larger litters. The size of a litter also depends on factors such as geographic location and food supply.

Kodiak brown bears FWS 18385
Kodiak bear cubs play-fighting

At birth, the cubs are blind, toothless, hairless, and weigh less than 450 grams (1 lb). They feed on their mother's milk until spring or even early summer, depending on climate conditions. At this time, the cubs weigh 7 to 9 kilograms (15 to 20 lb) and have developed enough to follow her and begin to forage for solid food.

Cubs remain with their mother from two to four years, during which time they learn survival techniques, such as which foods have the highest nutritional values and where to obtain them; how to hunt, fish, and defend themselves; and where to den. The cubs learn by following and imitating their mother's actions during the period they are with her.

Dietary habits

Brown Bear Feeding on Salmon
Brown bear feeding on salmon
Brown bear being followed by a wolf

They are omnivores and feed on a variety of plant products, including berries, roots, and sprouts, and fungi, as well as meat products such as fish, insects, and small mammals. Despite their reputation, most brown bears are not highly carnivorous, as they derive up to 90% of their dietary food energy from vegetable matter.

Their jaw structure has evolved to fit their dietary habits. Their diet varies enormously throughout their differing areas based on opportunity. For example, bears in Yellowstone eat an enormous number of moths during the summer, sometimes as many as 40,000 in a day, and may derive up to half of their annual food energy from these insects.

In some areas of Russia and Alaska, brown bears feed mostly on spawning salmon, whose nutrition and abundance explain the enormous size of the bears in these areas. Brown bears also occasionally prey on large mammals, such as deer (including elk, moose and caribou), bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison and muskoxen. When brown bears attack these animals, they tend to choose the young ones, as they are easier to catch. When hunting, the bear pins its prey to the ground and then tears and eats it alive. On rare occasions, bears kill by hitting their prey with their powerful forearms, which can break the necks and backs of large prey, such as moose.

They also feed on carrion, and use their size to intimidate other predators, such as wolves, cougars, tigers, and black bears from their kills.

Relationship with humans

Front paw imprint
Grizzly rear paw print
Rear paw imprint

Bears become attracted to human-created food sources, such as garbage dumps, litter bins, and dumpsters; they venture into human dwellings or barns in search of food as humans encroach into bear habitats. In the U.S., bears sometimes kill and eat farm animals. When bears come to associate human activity with a "food reward", they are likely to continue to become emboldened; the likelihood of human-bear encounters increases, as they may return to the same location despite relocation.

Relocation of the bear has been used to separate the bear from the human environment, but it does not address the problem of the bear's newly-learned association of humans with food or the environmental situations which created the human-habituated bear. "Placing a bear in habitat used by other bears may lead to competition and social conflict, and result in the injury or death of the less dominant bear."

Yellowstone National Park, an enormous reserve located in the western United States, contains prime habitat for the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), and due to the enormous number of visitors, human-bear encounters are common.

In Europe, part of the problem lies with shepherds; over the past two centuries, many sheep and goat herders have gradually abandoned the more traditional practice of using dogs to guard flocks, which have concurrently grown larger. Typically, they allow the herds to graze freely over sizeable tracts of land. As bears reclaim parts of their range, they may eat livestock. In some cases, the shepherds shoot the bear, thinking their livelihood is under threat. Many are now better informed about the ample compensation available, and will make a claim when they lose livestock to a bear.

Bear encounters

Sankebetsu BrownBear01
A statue of the Ussuri brown bear from Hokkaido which perpetrated the worst brown bear attack in Japanese history

There are an average of two fatal attacks by bears per year in North America. In Scandinavia, there are only four known cases since 1902 of bear encounters which have resulted in death. The two most common causes for bear attack are surprise and curiosity. Some types of bears, such as polar bears, are more likely to attack humans when searching for food, while American black bears are much less likely to attack.

The Alaska Science Center ranks the following as the most likely reasons for bear attacks:

  1. Surprise
  2. Curiosity
  3. Invaded personal space (this includes a mother bear protecting her young)
  4. Predatory intent
  5. Hunting wounded
  6. Carcass defense
  7. Provoked charge

Aggressive behavior in brown bears is favored by numerous selection variables. Unlike the smaller black bears, adult brown bears are too large to escape danger by climbing trees, so they respond to danger by standing their ground and warding off their attackers. Increased aggressiveness also assists female brown bears in better ensuring the survival of their young to reproductive age.

Attacks on humans

Bear trap GTNP1
A drum or barrel trap used to safely relocate bears parked adjacent to a building in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming in the United States

As a rule, brown bears seldom attack humans on sight, and usually avoid people. They are, however, unpredictable in temperament, and will attack if they are surprised or feel threatened. Sows with cubs account for the majority of injuries and fatalities in North America. Habituated or food-conditioned bears can also be dangerous, as their long-term exposure to humans causes them to lose their natural shyness, and, in some cases, to associate humans with food.


Many Native American tribes both respected and feared the brown bear, even thinking of it as a god. One tale tells of how the black bear was a creation of the Great Spirit, while the grizzly was created by the Evil Spirit. In Kwakiutl mythology, black and brown bears became enemies when Grizzly Bear Woman killed Black Bear Woman for being lazy. Black Bear Woman's children, in turn, killed Grizzly Bear Woman's own cubs.

The grizzly bear is the state animal of both Montana and California.

The Three Bears - Project Gutenberg etext 19993
"The Story of the Three Bears", illustration from Childhood's Favorites and Fairy Stories

Brown bears often figure into the literature of Europe and North America, in particular that which is written for children. "The Brown Bear of Norway" is a Scottish fairy tale telling the adventures of a girl who married a prince magically turned into a bear, and who managed to get him back into a human form by the force of her love and after many trials and difficulties. With "Goldilocks and the Three Bears", a story from England, the three bears are usually depicted as brown bears. In German speaking countries, children are often told the fairytale of Snow White and Rose Red; the handsome prince in this tale has been transfigured into a brown bear. In the United States, parents often read their preschool age children the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? to teach them their colors and how they are associated with different animals.

The Russian bear is a common national personification for Russia (as well as the Soviet Union). The brown bear is also Germany's and Finland's national animal.

Berni Bayern
Berni is a brown bear mascot of the German football club Bayern Munich

The school mascot for each of the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Alberta is the brown bear.

The coat of arms of Madrid depicts a bear reaching up into a madroño or strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) to eat some of its fruit, whereas the Swiss city of Bern's coat of arms also depicts a bear and the city's name is popularly thought to derive from the German word for bear.

In the town of Prats de Molló, in Vallespir, Northern Catalonia, a "bear festival" (festa de l'ós) is celebrated annually at the beginning of spring, in which the locals dress up as bears, cover themselves with soot or coal and oil, and "attack" the onlookers, attempting to get everyone dirty. The festival ends with the ball de l'os (bear dance).

Images for kids

See also

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