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Physical Characteristics Of Bears

Many people have asked me recently about the different physical characteristics of the bears found in North America. I have written this article to explain the shared and different characteristics between the three bear species found in North America.

What Are The Physical Characteristics Of Bears? 

There are three types of bears found in North America, the American black bear, the brown grizzly bear, and the polar bear.

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Height and Weight

American Black BearUp to 90 cm tallUp to 300 kg
Brown BearUp to 150 cm tallUp to 600 kg
Polar BearUp to 130 cm tallUp to 450 kg

Shoulder Hump

There are several differences that you can notice between brown bears and black bears at first glance.

Brown bears have a pronounced hump at their shoulder, whereas black bears do not. The shoulder hump is made up of a large muscle that the black bear does not have.

You can see the difference in the two pictures below.

Bears can often be seen playing with each other, but do you know why?  Find out in this article I wrote

Black bears do not have the hump on their back


There are a few differences in both the black bear and the grizzly bear’s faces and heads. Brown bears have a concave, dish-shaped face, with small, round ears and a prominent snout.

Brown Bear

Black bears have more prominent, large, pointed ears. Their face is not dish-shaped like the brown bears but has a much straighter profile.

Black bear


It would make sense to believe that a black bear is black, and a brown bear is brown. However, this is not the case. Black bears can be brown, and brown bears can be black. Both species can also be many other colors, from cinnamon to almost white.

Black bear
Black Bear (in brown)
Spirit bear (subspecies of black bear)
Grizzly bear
Brown bear
Brown bear (in cinnamon)
Brown bear (almost white)

Do Bears Have Whiskers?

All mammals have whiskers (except monotremes), and bears are no exception to this. Some mammals use their whiskers to sense prey and find their way around, but bears are exceptions to this. These sensory whiskers are called vibrissae due to the vibrations that the animal feels through the whiskers. The whiskers that a bear has do not give the same sensory function as most mammals. 

Black bears do have hairs around the snout, but these do not function in the same way as vibrissae. The hairs on a black bear do not provide sensory information to the brain of the bear. Brown bears also have hairs around their snout, but these are not long like the sensory vibrissae that cats and dogs do.

Like the other species of bear, Polar bears do have a hairy snout but do not have a set of sensory whiskers. It is possible that due to the size of all three bears, the function of the vibrissae is not needed, as they are in smaller, prey-driven animals.

If you have ever wondered why bears are mammals, I have written this article

Do Bears Have Tails?

The short answer for those of you who are still here is that yes, they do. Black bears, brown bears, and polar bears all have tails. The tails for all three bears are small but do still serve some function. Brown bears use their tails to wipe secretions from their anal glands onto logs, trees, and other surfaces to spread their scent.

Do Bears Have Belly Buttons?

Bears are mammals and are born with an umbilical cord. When the umbilical cord is released after birth, there is a small scar, as there is with humans. However, this soon fades and gets covered with fur.  The belly button can be seen on all newborn bears, including black bears, brown bears, and polar bears.

Do Bears Have Good Eyesight?

There is a myth about bears that they have bad eyesight. This has come around because bears have such an incredible sense of smell that they do not rely on their vision. Bears do have good eyesight, which is comparable to human eyesight.

Bears move their eyes, which, although smaller than some animals such as a deer, means they do not have to move their head to see different directions.  

Bears are predators, and the retina of a bear is much like humans. They can focus on a specific area, but the area is small. The pupil of a bear is more of a slit than our eyes but opens almost twice the width of our eyes. This helps the bear see in low light conditions.  

Bears do see in color, not just black and white. Bears have ten times the amount of rods in their eyes as us, which helps collect light, allowing them to see in the dark. Light reflects from the back of the retina. This is called the tapetum lucid, effectively doubling the amount of light the bear sees.  

Bears have a horizontal field of view of 120 degrees, compared to our field of vision is slightly increased at 135 degrees.

You can find out which National Parks you can see bears here.

Do Bears Have Paws?

Bears do have paws at the end of their legs. The paws are not the same size on the front and back, however. On the front, the paws are shorter than the paws on the back of the bear.

The paws on the front are used more than the paws on the back. The paws on the front help the bear get into logs and tree trunks that may have food and insects in.

Do Bears Have Thumbs?

Although they do have the same kind of joint as a human hand, bears do not have thumbs. The joint is hinged, allowing the toes to curl towards the pad of the paw. Black bears are known to be good climbers, but this is not due to the paw’s shape.

Their excellent climbing abilities are due to their claws, which allow them to clasp onto trees and even allow them to climb up the side of mountains.

Want to find out if bears can climb trees? Find out here.

Grizzly bear paw

Brown grizzly bears cannot climb trees, as their claws are not powerful enough to grip onto the bark. This is also due to the immense weight of a grizzly bear. You would think that polar bears do not even know what a tree is, but they are in the Arctic. Polar bears cannot climb trees, which is mainly due to their extreme weight.

Do Bears Have Retractable Claws?

Black bears, brown bears, and polar bears all have fixed claws. Their claws do not retract, such as a lion would. A bear track will always show the claws on the end of the paws.

Do Bears have Legs Or Arms?

All species of bear have two arms at the front of their bodies. At the back of the body, they have two legs. Technically, all four are called legs, with the front two called forelegs.

Do Bears Have Knees?

Bears do have knees, but only on their rear legs. The knee is the joint on the back limb, i.e., the leg. Bears have two knees, one on each of their rear legs. All four-legged mammals have two knees.

Do bears have tails? Find out here in another article I have written.

Do Bears Have Elbows?

Just as all four-legged mammals have two knees, all four-legged mammals have two elbows. These can be found as they are on humans, on the arms.

The arms, or forelegs, are found at the front, with the elbows found in the same place you would find them on humans if we were on all fours.

How Many Fingers And Toes Does A Bear Have?

Bears technically have toes, but not fingers. Black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears all have five toes on each paw, making a total of 20.


There are notable differences in the tracks between the three species of bears in North America. Both black bears and grizzly bears show their claws in their tracks, whereas polar bears do not.

Spotting the difference between a black bear track and a brown bear track is actually quite simple. Black bears have shorter claws, whereas brown bears have much larger claws that can grow up to almost 10 cm.

Black bear track
Black bear tracks – Claw not pronounced
Brown bear tracks – Can see the claw
Polar bear tracks

Do you know if bears can swim? Find out here