There are three species of bear in North America, the American black bear, brown bear, and polar bear. All have the typical mammalian features of eyes, nose, and ears, and I am often asked how good their senses are. In this article, we find out.
All three species of North American bear rely on their sense of smell to find food, mates and locate their cubs. Bears vision is good and they have excellent night vision. Bears have a really good range of hearing, allowing them to hear sounds outside of our own range.
If you want to know more about how good a bears senses are, please read on.
Bears have small eyes that face forward and are spaced apart, giving them binocular vision. Bears are nearsighted, which is perfect for feeding close to the ground. When they stand up, their distance increases. Although they can recognise shapes over long distances, details are not as sharp. Grizzly bears are near-sighted, but their vision is good and they can recognise objects up to 200 feet away. It is thought that bears vision is equal to our own but have better night vision.
Polar bears have the best night vision due to the long dark winters they endure. They have the largest eyes of all three North American bears. To see in the glare of the snow, they have a nictitating membrane on the eye. This acts as a transparent eyelid to filter out any glare and protects the eye. Polar bears are aquatic mammals and can see well underwater due to the nictitating membrane.
Bears can see in colour and see moving objects much better than those standing still. Their depth perception is not great over distance but excels when an object is close.
Because of their excellent sense of smell, polar bears do not rely on their vision to find food, although they can see objects a mile away in good conditions.
All three species of North American bears have small ears, but their hearing is good. American black bears have small, rounded ears set back on the head, while brown bears are located further forward. The ears of a polar bear are located lower on the head to protect them from the cold.
Bears have an excellent range of hearing and can hear sounds between 40,000 and 60,000 hertz and in the ultrasonic range of 16-20 megahertz.
It is said that bears can detect a human conversation at 300 meters and a camera shutter at 50 meters. Bears do not rely on their hearing to find large prey but use it to find smaller prey such as gophers, squirrels, mice, and voles.
Although small, bear ears rotate to find the sound source, allowing them to use their other senses to pinpoint the disturbance.
Bears can often be seen with their heads up and their nose sniffing the air for strange scents. Smell is the most important sense that a bear has and is essential for survival.
Bears have an excellent sense of smell, even better than dogs. The sense of smell is said to be seven times as strong as a bloodhound, a dog bred to track people and animals.
The bear’s sense of smell allows them to find a mate, avoid other bears or humans, and locate their cubs. Without their keen sense of smell, bears would not survive, as it relies on smell to find a good food source.
The bear’s nose is much more advanced than most animals and the nasal mucous membrane is a hundred times as large as humans. The nasal mucous membrane is rich with blood vessels inside the nasal cavity. Their olfactory sensory neurons are also much more numerous than ours and give the bear their excellent sense of smell. In humans, the olfactory mucosa is less than an inch square, but in brown bears can be a hundred times bigger.
Black bears can smell a dead deer at least three miles away, as evidenced in California, where a bear was seen travelling straight to get to the carcass.
Brown bears have an even better sense of smell, thought to be about seventy-five times as good as our own, allowing them to smell a human over two miles away.
Polar bears have the best sense of smell of the three bears found in North America. Polar bears can smell a seal under three feet of snow and detect their breath over three miles away.
What Do Bears Smell Like?
Bears have an odour to them. The smell of a bear is quite distinct and is unlike most other animals. I have never smelled a polar bear and don’t ever want to get close enough to smell one, but I do know the smell of black and brown bears.
Bears tend to smell of what they have been eating a lot of. If a brown bear has been feeding on a lot of salmon, it will have a fishy smell coming off their bodies. Whether this is coming from their pores or because they have been rolling in dead fish carcasses isn’t precisely known, but I know if I eat a lot of garlic or asparagus, I tend to smell like it. Brown bears tend to smell musky like a wet dog most of the time.
Black bears smell pretty nice due to the number of plants they eat. Because they eat fruit as well, their smell can be quite sweet, almost like a sweet, freshly cut lawn.
Bears have sensitive paws and lips and can be highly dextrous for animals of any size, especially as large as they are. Bears have highly sensitive footpads on their paws, and they can use these to move around small objects, passing them from one paw to another.
Bears use their claws for foraging and climbing. They have been seen to take individual eggs out of fish and can scratch inside their ears without hurting themselves.
Although it is not known if this is due to their excellent sense of touch, bears have also been seen to detect tremors in the earth before an earthquake. Brown bears have been seen moving from their usual habitats before a large quake.