Skip to Content

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 features shared and distinct between the three bear species in North America.

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

Height and Weight

Species Height Weight
American Black Bear Up to 36 in tall Up to 300 kg
Brown Bear Up to 51 in tall Up to 450 kg
Polar Bear Up to 59 in tall Up to 600 kg

The American black bear is the smallest bear species in North America. They stand up to 36 inches tall at the shoulder on four legs and weigh up to 300 kg. When standing, they can reach up to 5.5 feet tall.

The second largest bear species in North America is the brown bear. Also known as the grizzly bear, they stand up to 51 inches tall on four legs and weigh 450kg. When standing, they can reach up to 8 feet tall.

The polar bear is the largest bear species and the largest terrestrial carnivore, standing up to 51 inches tall on four legs and weighing up to 450 kg. When standing, they can reach up to 10 feet tall.

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 comprises a large muscle that a black bear does not have.

You can see the difference in the two pictures below.

Brown bear with hump on the back
Brown bear with the hump on the shoulder black bears does not have the hump on their back.


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

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

Face of brown bear with text
Brown Bear
Black bear with text regarding face
Black bear


It would be easy 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 bareback Bear (in brown)
Spirit bear
Spirit bear (subspecies of black bear)
Grizzly bear
Brown bear (in cinnamon)
Brown bear (almost white)
Brown bear (almost white)

Do Bears Have Whiskers?

All mammals have whiskers (except monotremes), and bears are no exception. A bear’s whiskers do not give the same sensory function as most mammals. The hairs on a black bear do not provide sensory information to the bear’s brain. Some mammals use their whiskers to sense prey and find their way around, but a bear’s whiskers do not function the same. These sensory whiskers are called vibrissae due to the vibrations through the whiskers.

Black bears have hairs around the snout but do not function as vibrissae. Brown bears also have hairs around their nose, but these are short.

Like the other bear species, polar bears also 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.

Do Bears Have Tails?

Black bears, brown bears, and polar bears all have tails. The tails for all three bears are small, but only the brown bear is still used. Brown bears use their tails to wipe secretions from their anal glands onto logs, trees, and other surfaces to spread their scent.

Bears have vestigial tails. Their tails are not used for the same purposes as most mammals. Tails are generally used for balance, as in kangaroos and dogs, or to propel themselves forward while swimming. Bears do not need tails for either of these reasons, and the stools have been lost for millions of years.

If you want to know more about why bears have tails, I have written this article.

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 ideas, which is comparable to human eyesight.

Bears move their eyes, so they do not have to move their head to see different directions. Bears have a horizontal field of view of 120 degrees compared to our field of vision of 135 degrees.

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

Bears do not see in black and white but in color. 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, called the tapetum lucideffectively doubling the amount of light the bear sees.  

Do Bears Have Paws?

Bears do have paws at the end of their legs. However, the feet are not the same size on the front and back. In the show, the claws 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 claws on the front help the bear rip into logs and tree trunks that may have food and insects.

The evolution of bears is fascinating. Find out more here

Bear claw
Grizzly bear paw

Do Bears Have Thumbs?

Although they have the same joint as human hands, bears do not have thumbs. The joint is hinged, allowing the toes to curl towards the pad of the paw. Black bears are 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 climb up the side of mountains.

Brown grizzly bears cannot climb trees, as their claws are not powerful enough to grip the bark, and adults are too heavy to support themselves. Polar bears cannot climb trees due to their extreme weight and not too many trees in their habitat.

Want to know how fast bears climb trees? It may surprise you

Do Bears Have Retractable Claws?

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

Do Bears have Legs Or Arms?

All species of bear have two legs at the front of their bodies and two at the back. 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 hind legs. Bears have one on each of their hind legs.

Do Bears Have Elbows?

Bears have four legs, so they have four knees, not two elbows, as some think.

How Many Fingers And Toes Does A Bear Have?

Bears have toes but no fingers. Black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears have five toes on each paw, totaling 20.


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

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

Black bear track
Black bear tracks – Claw not pronounced.
Brown bear track
 Brown bear tracks – You can see the claw
Polar bear track
Polar bear tracks.

Do you know if bears can swim? Find out here

References and Further Reading

NHPBS – Brown bear

San Diego Zoo – Bears

Science Direct – Polar bears

ESA Journals – Den-site characteristics and selection by brown bears