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 species of bears found in North America.

What Are The Physical Characteristics Of Bears? 

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

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.

Black bears do not have the hump on their back


There are a few differences in the faces and heads of both the black bear and the grizzly bear.

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.

Want to know how to spot the difference between a male and female bear? You can find out here in an article I have written.

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 to find their way around, but bears are one of the 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 they do with 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 again these are not long like the sensory vibrissae that cats and dogs do.

Polar bears, like the other species of bear, 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 are not needed, as they are in smaller, prey-driven animals.

Do Bears Have Tails?

I wrote an article recently on whether bears have tails as I had a few requests from people regarding this. You can read this article here.

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.

For more information on the tail of a bear, I have written an article which you can find here.

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 very 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 like us, which helps the collection of light, allowing them to see in the dark. Light reflects back 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.

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.

Black Bear Paw With sharp Claws in view

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?

Bears do not have thumbs, although they do have the same kind of joint as a human hand. 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 shape of the paw.

Their 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.

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 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 of the bears, with the elbows found in the same place you would find them on humans if we were on all fours.

Ever wondered what a pizzly bear is? You can read all about this amazing creature in an article I have written here.

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.

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

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Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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