One Life: Bears

23 March 2021

One Life

Bears are mammals that belong to the family Ursidae. They can be as small as four feet long and about 60 pounds/40kg (the sun bear) to as big as eight feet long and more than a thousand pounds/450kg (the polar bear). They’re found throughout North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.

There are eight species: Asiatic black bears (also called moon bears), brown bears (which include grizzly bears), giant pandas, North American black bears, polar bears, sloth bears, spectacled bears (also called Andean bears), and sun bears.

Excellent senses

Bears have an excellent sense of smell and use this as a key sense to collect information about their surrounding environment.

A heightened sense of smell is particularly important for polar bears who need to be able to locate their prey over very large distances. Polar bears can reportedly smell seals and other animals up to 9 km (5.6 miles) away. They can even smell the breathing holes seals create in the ice from almost one km (0.6 miles) away. 

Excellent memories

Bears eat many different types of food, they have to remember where to find these foods and when they are ready to eat. A bear can remember where they found a certain type of food that it ate over ten years ago.

Bears share their living area with many other bears, they interact with each other, and remember familiar individuals throughout their lives, recognizing them and understanding their social status and previous encounters.

Nature recyclers

Bears are good for the forest, they eat fruits, and the seeds of the fruits are planted back into the soil when the bears poo. The seeds then grow in the new area they are deposited within, helping to maintain a healthy natural environment.

Build nests

Asiatic black bears, black bears, spectacled bears and sun bears make ‘beds’ and resting areas in trees by bending tree branches. Some will sleep in these nests while others will just rest and/or eat in them and move on. These can be on the ground or as much as 20m up a tree.

Read more: Bear Sanctuaries | Bear Bile Farming

Excellent problem solvers

Alaskan Brown Bears have demonstrated problem solving skills by using ‘tools’ to solve problems such as how to reach out of reach of food items. 

Bears have been observed moving tree stump’s and boxes in order to stand upon them and grab a food item that has been placed out of their reach.

This evidence of tool use and problem solving through the manipulation of objects for a specific goal has been observed in many different contexts by bear researchers.

Brown bears have been observed using barnacle-covered rocks to exfoliate themselves in the wild, with bears using rocks to scratch irritated skin or remove food from fur while moulting.

Bears can also outsmart humans in their efforts to avoid capture. Bears have been known to roll rocks into bear traps to set off the trap and eat the bait in safety, and a bear in Montana was seen dismantling an electric charge used to protect a dead deer before being able to steal the quarry.

In behavioural experiments, captive bears have also shown that they can perform numerical tasks, including distinguishing the number of dots on an image, demonstrating that bears show counting abilities.

Great mums

Mother bears are affectionate, protective, devoted, strict, sensitive and attentive toward their cubs, raising them to an age where they can survive on their own. 

Depending on food abundance, some mothers may keep their yearlings a second and in some cases a third year, denning together again and breaking up in the third or fourth year.

Bear mums care deeply about their family and they will risk their lives and even fight to the death to save a cub or sibling from danger.

Mothers teach their cubs how to hunt and protect them from danger, and  they ‘talk’ to each other and understand how each other is feeling through their vocalisations and understanding of their behaviours. 

In the winter, polar bear mums give birth to 2 or 3 cubs, in dug-out overwinter dens. Mums may go without eating for up to 8 months, surviving only on their body fat while over-wintering and feeding their newborn young. 

The cubs and the mother remain in the den in hibernation until the early spring when they emerge to see the outside world for the first time.

Have smelly feet

Bears communicate with other bears through their feet while walking. By twisting their feet into the ground, brown bears leave their scent. This scent is produced by foot glands and contains 26 specific compounds that inform other bears information about them as individuals. This is repeated by others, which step exactly in the same places, leaving a trail of smelly holes in the ground full of information for other bears to explore.

In such scent trails, bears can exchange information and get to know who is around, who they have to avoid and who they would love to meet. 

‘Talk’ to each other

The ability to communicate effectively with others plays a critical role in the lives of all animals. By doing so they can infer intentions and emotional states, and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Bears use growls, huffs, barks, and roars to tell other bears what they are doing and how they are feeling, and other bears understand the meaning of these sounds.

“I want to play!”

Adult polar bears can at times be quite playful. Their play bouts are usually mock fights, which serve several functions, they help them to practice for real fights, build the necessary muscle tone, and they are fun. When a polar bear wants to play they will wag their head from side to side. The play fight usually then involves them standing on their hind legs, with their chin lowered to their chests, and their front paws hung loosely by their sides.  

“Please share with me!”

Food is scarce in the polar bear habitat, and so when another bear has found food they may be approached by others wanting to share. Adult male polar bears may be less likely to share, but a female who is approached by her grown offspring may be willing to let them join her in a meal. To initiate this, the approaching bear will come up slowly, circle around the carcass, and then gently and submissively touch the feeding bear’s nose. These nose-nose greetings are a non-aggressive social interaction that says, “I come in peace”. 

“Don’t mess with me”

When a polar bear is angry and wants to deter another bear away, they can perform a number of aggressive communications. Polar bears may roar loudly, growl, hiss, or snort in order to show anger and aggressive intentions. Deep growls are a warning sign, and they are generally used to defend food. 

If these warning signs do not work, then a polar bear may charge forwards with their head down and their ears laid back to attack the other bear. A female may do this rushing behaviour when protecting her cubs from an unwanted male.

Not all polar bears want to fight. If they smell a more dominant bear around, then they will move themselves downwind of them, to keep out of their way.

Cubs are very vocal

Polar bears are relatively quiet animals, but inside the den the cubs are anything but silent. Polar bear cubs hum, scream, cry, moan and groan and each of these vocalisations represents a different intention and emotion for the mother to interpret. 

If a cub cannot find its mother, or simply does not get its own way, it produces a distress cry. If a cub is simply not in a good mood, it produces a series of moans and groans to convey its discomfort. In contrast when a cub is content, following a feed or when dozing or sleeping, they produce a comforting humming sound. When a cub is hungry it produces a gulping sound to let its mother know it is ready to eat, and when a cub is nursing, it produces a contented hum.

The cubs chatter instigates a response from the mother, if she feels stressed due to the moans and groans of her cubs she is likely to produce her own chuffing sound in response, and when she is engaged in a grooming session she will also produce her own contented vocalisation.

Finally, after a long day of nursing her cubs, mother polar bears can often be heard snoring.

Knowledge of these vocalisations help us to understand the importance of the maternal infant bond for polar bears.

Mothers are attentive, frequently touching and grooming their cubs, in fact the most constant social interaction between polar bears occurs between the mother and her cubs

Learn from each other

Mother bears teach their cubs how to find food and how to stay safe. She educates them about what foods are good to eat and where to find them. By the time a juvenile bear leaves its mum, it knows what plant foods are available at each time of the season, and what habitats are likely to have those foods over a very large area. That knowledge serves them well as they move into new areas, learning and remembering where new food sources are found in a new environment. This knowledge is also critical to finding food when food sources change drastically from year to year depending upon weather and climate.

Like to take a bath

Lactating grizzlies are especially prone to heat stress and use water holes to cool down. Because the body temperature of mammals rises during lactation, bath-taking by female grizzly bears may help facilitate increased milk production and help ensure offspring survival.


Bears like to have fun and play with each other, play bouts help them develop socially whilst also helping them to learn essential survival skills. Cubs are particularly playful and they enjoy chasing after and tackling their siblings and also play fighting with their mother too.


Bears exhibit moral behaviour when they engage in play behaviour. Play has very distinct ‘unwritten’ rules. Fair play demonstrates that animals exhibit the fundamentals of moral behaviour. For play to continue the more dominant, stronger individual must be able to adjust his or her actions to meet the needs of the other individuals involved. Making a moral decision not to harm the other individual to ensure continuation of the game.

Bears like to pull faces

Sun bears use facial expressions to communicate with others, other bears understand the meaning of these facial expressions and they may also mimic the facial expressions of other bears during periods of social play in a similar way to humans and apes.

Experience sorrow

Bear cubs show signs of sadness if they have become separated from their mother, crying to try to attract her attention and showing signs of being lost and unhappy

Bears really are amazing animals!

Bear conservation

Six species, including the polar bear and the giant panda, are included on the IUCN Red List as threatened or vulnerable.

Polar bears are listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN. There are thought to be around 23,000 polar bears worldwide and this number could drop dramatically in the next few decades.

Polar bears need ice to hunt, travel, and raise their cubs. Global warming is causing their ice to melt and this is threatening their survival. Polar bears rely on the sea ice for hunting, and as the Arctic warms, the sea ice is melting, and polar bears are becoming increasingly cut-off from their main hunting grounds. This is particularly challenging for females with cubs, as cubs do not have the thick layer of fat they need to survive the cold water. Mother bears are therefore reluctant to swim with young cubs, restricting their access to food considerably. 

Human activity in the Arctic has also dramatically increased with further oil and gas extraction, increased shipping, mining and tourism. All of these activities present a threat to the polar bears and their way of life.

Please help to protect their arctic home, do all you can to limit your personal impact on the environment and help to keep polar bears in the wild where they belong

Asiatic black bear threats

The Asiatic black bear has been hunted for centuries for its skin, paws and for the gallbladder, which is used in Oriental medicine. Recent deforestation across the Asian Continent is a major threat to the survival of the species. Habitat is cleared by logging practices, development and an encroaching human population. These bears may be regarded as a pest and consequently persecuted in some areas as they can destroy crops. In China, bears were taken from the wild to be kept in captivity as a source of bile for medicine

Sun bear threats

The majority of the Sun Bears’ forest habitat has been destroyed by logging and conversion to agriculture. In addition to levelling the forest, logging roads creates convenient access for poachers. The demand for bear products is a major threat to all bears. Traditional Asian medicine prescribes bear bile, spinal cord, blood, and bones for complaints ranging from baldness to rheumatism. Bear entrees are popular in restaurants, and Sun Bear paws are used for soup. In addition, people often keep Sun Bears as pets. The mother bears are killed in order to obtain the cubs.

Sun bear numbers are dwindling due to deforestation, poaching and being killed by farmers for eating crops. Increasingly, new mother bears are killed so their cub can be taken and raised as a pet or kept in captivity as 'bile bears' where their bile is harvested for use in some Chinese medicines.

Animals Asia is devoted to ending bear bile farming and improving the welfare of animals across Asia. We promote compassion and respect for all animals and work to bring about long-term change.Will you help us reach our mission to end bear bile farming in Vietnam for good?