There are three bear species in North America, the American black bear, the brown bear, and the polar bear. All have the typical mammalian features of eyes, nose, and ears, and I am often asked how good their senses are.
All three species of North American bear rely on their sense of smell to find food, potential mates and locate their cubs. A bear’s vision is good, and they have excellent night vision. Bears have a fantastic hearing range, with twice our sensitivity, allowing them to hear sounds outside our scope.
Please read on if you want to know more about how good a bear’s senses are.
How Far Can A Bear See?
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 on two feet, the distance increases.
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.
While they can recognize shapes over long distances, details are not as sharp. Grizzly bears are near-sighted, but their vision is good, and they can recognize objects up to 200 feet away. It is thought that bears’ vision is equal to ours but has better night vision.
Polar bears have the best night vision due to the long dark winters. They have the largest eyes of all three North American bears. They have a nictitating membrane on the eye to see through the glare of the snow, which acts as a transparent eyelid to filter out glare and help protect the eye. Polar bears are aquatic mammals and can see well underwater due to the nictitating membrane.
Bears can see in color and see moving objects much better than those standing still. Their depth perception is not significant over distance but excels when something is close.
How Good is a Bears Sense of Smell?
Bears have an excellent sense of smell, even better than dogs. The sense of smell is seven times as strong as a bloodhound, a dog bred to track people and animals.
Bears can often be seen sniffing the air for strange scents. Their excellent sense of smell is a bear’s most important sense and is essential for survival.
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 scent to find a good food source.
The bear’s nose is much more advanced than most animals, and the nasal mucous membrane is one hundred times as large as humans. The nasal mucous membrane is rich with blood vessels inside the nasal cavity.
Their olfactory sensory neurons are much more numerous than ours and give the bear an excellent sense of smell. In humans, the olfactory mucosa is less than an inch square, but brown bears can be a hundred times bigger.
How Far Away Can A Bear Smell?
Black bears can smell a dead deer at least three miles away, as evidenced in California, where a bear was seen traveling straight to get to the carcass. It is thought that both black and brown bears can smell a campsite up to 20 miles away.
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. The polar bear can smell food up to 40 miles away.
How Good is a Bears Hearing?
Bears have an excellent range of hearing and can hear sounds between 40,000 and 60,000 hertz 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.
All three 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. A polar bear’s ears are lowered on the head to protect them from the cold.
Although small, bear ears rotate to find the sound source, allowing them to use their other senses to pinpoint the disturbance.
How Sensitive is a Bears Touch?
Bears have sensitive paws and lips and can be highly dextrous for animals for their size. Bears have highly sensitive footpads on their paws and can use them to move around small objects, passing them from one foot 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.
What Do Bears Smell Like?
Bears have an odor to them. The smell of a bear is quite distinct and is unlike most other animals. I have only smelled a polar bear in the zoo, but I know the smell of black and brown bears quite well.
Bears tend to smell what they have been eating a lot. If a brown bear has been feeding on salmon, it will have a fishy smell coming off its body. 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 wet dogs, most of the time I have been close to them.
Black bears smell much nicer due to the number of plants they eat. Because they also eat fruit, their smell can be pretty sweet, almost like a freshly cut lawn.
References and Further Reading
Bear.org – Senses and abilities
Florida Fish and Wildlife – Behavior
Alaska Department of Fish and Game – Alaska Fish and Wildlife News