Three out of the world’s eight bear species live in North America. These species are black bears, brown grizzly bears, and polar bears. In all three there are several key differences between males and females.
Male bears are larger than female bears. Males have rounded face shapes with small ears, while females have narrower faces and larger ears. Females urinate backward between the hindlegs and sometimes squat, while males always urinate forward.
Gender identification can be difficult in the wild, and it can be tricky unless you come across a bear followed by her cubs or urinating. However, each of the three bear species has ways to differentiate between males and females.
Head, Shoulders, and Neck
The head of a male bear is square and broad, with thick, masculine shoulders. The muscles of the bear create a valley-like structure down the forehead.
The shoulders are well-defined and much larger than the head. Male bears are much more likely to have scarring on their head and muzzle, and can often be missing parts of their ears due to fights that have occurred.
The ears of a male bear are further apart compared to females. The ears of males are also smaller and look out of place compared to the head’s massive size.
Body Shape and Legs
The testicles and sheath of the penis are highly visible on a male bear. Males urinate forward between the legs. This is one of the best ways to tell if the bear you are looking at is male or female.
Adult male bears have long legs. The front legs are solid all the way from the top to the feet, with wide ankles to support their weight. A male bear’s midsection appears bulky due to the fat reserves it needs to build up for hibernation.
Sex Organ & Urination
Head, Shoulders, and Neck
The head of the female is narrow compared to the round head size of the male bear. Female bears also have a tapered muzzle. On a male bear, the shoulders are much broader than the head, while females generally have shoulders the same width as their head.
The ears of the female are prominent on the head, compared to the male bear, who has much smaller ears.
Body Shape and Legs
A female bear’s legs are shorter and thinner in comparison to males. The front legs of the female appear to taper up to narrow shoulders. Females look stockier and closer to the ground since they have shorter legs. A female with cubs may also show a lack of hair around the armpits, as the cubs often pull it out.
Sex Organ and Urination
A nursing bear with her cubs can easily be identified. Female bears urinate to the rear and outwards. Female bears can also be seen squatting to urinate.
Are Males Bigger Than Female Bears?
Male bears are often much larger than females. Male adult black bears weigh between 130-661 lbs, whereas females weigh 88-174 lbs. When the mating season comes in May and June, the female bear gains weight due to pregnancy, but males are often still larger.
Female bears are shorter, stockier, and leaner in stature, while males have heavily muscled shoulders, heads & necks than females. The head of the male bear is much rounder and broader when compared with females.
Are Male and Female Black Bear Faces Different?
There is a big contrast between the face shape of a male and a female bear. A female bear’s face is much more narrow, while males have a much wider head.
Male bears have smaller ears on their head. The smaller, narrower head of the female is the best way to tell the difference between the genders.
What Are The Differences Between Male and Female Grizzly Bears?
The easiest way to tell the difference between a male and a female bear is to observe how the bear urinates. If the bear’s urine comes from the back, the bear is a female. If the urine stream is underneath the torso, it is a male bear.
Another good way is to look at the sexual organ of the male bear if it is easily visible. It is, however, small in proportion to the size of their bodies.
If the grizzly bear is walking along with their cubs, this is a sign that the bear is female. Cubs stay with their mother for two to three years, after which the cubs roam on their own. They do not stay with their father.
Adult females weigh between 286-396 lbs with males weighing between 396-793 lbs. Female bears have shorter legs and are faster runners.
During the mating season between May and June, the walk of males becomes a swagger, with their legs moving further than their usual position.
If you are in an area where bears eat clams, then it is good to know that female bears are more likely to dig for clams than males.
What Are The Differences Between Male and Female Black Bears?
There are several differences between male and female black bears. The ears of female black bears are further apart and much larger than males. If the ears are large in proportion to the head, the bear is likely to be a female.
The head of the female bear is narrow, unlike males which typically have a roundish, wider head, with smaller ears. If the ears are on top of the head, rather than the side, the bear is likely female.
Another factor to determine the difference in gender is how they urinate. A male black bear urinates forward underneath the belly, while females urinate between the hindlegs or can be seen squatting.
The size of the bear is one of the best ways to identify gender. Large and round are the two most common characteristics of a male bear, whereas a female black bear is lean and smaller. Males spend most of their time alone seeking a mate, but females can often be seen with their cubs.
Another way to tell the gender is by looking closely at the bear’s backside. Female bears have long hairs beneath the tail, forming a ponytail, which they use to leave a scent. Females will climb small trees and shrubs during the mating season, leaving a scent behind, but males do not exhibit this behavior.
You can also tell the difference if you manage to see the nipples of the bear. If the female bear has cubs, then the cubs, while feeding, pull the hair out, making the nipples visible. You can see this from the side of the female bear, especially among older females.
What Are The Differences Between Male and Female Polar Bears?
Male polar bears generally grow two to three times larger than females. Males typically weigh around 1500 lbs, while non-pregnant females weigh almost two-thirds less at 498 lbs.
The height of a female while standing is between 6.56 to 8.20 feet. Males can stand between 8.20 to 9.84 feet tall. If a bear walks with their cubs, the bear will be female.
Urination is similar to other bears, with the female bear urinating at the back, while male polar bears urinate at the front.
Difference Between Bears In Mating Season
Bears enjoy solitary lives, but males and females come together during the mating season. The difference in age isn’t significant. Brown bears usually mature at four to five years, while the breeding age is between three to five years for female black bears.
The breeding season commences in May until the end of June. Female bears put on weight to protect the unborn cub. A pregnant bear can often be mistaken for a male bear due to the extra layers of fat.
Adult females establish homes for their cubs to stay with them during the first few years. Male bears travel solo to pursue a mate. If you find a bear roaming in the fields with no other bears in proximity, then the chances are high that this is a male bear.
Are Male Bears More Aggressive Than Female Bears?
It is often thought that female bears, especially those with cubs, are more aggressive than males. Studies have suggested that, while certain behaviors displayed by brown bears are gender-specific, male brown bears tend to exhibit more aggression than females.
Males will often get into fights over territorial disputes over mates, while female bears don’t. Female brown bears are often portrayed as more aggressive due to their protection of cubs. However, even with the added stress of protecting their young, females continue to show only moderate aggression towards humans.
Most bear attacks come from male bears but even these are rare. Black bears have caused 60 fatal maulings in North America in the last one hundred years. Out of these attacks, 92% were by predatory males.
References and Further Reading
Bears of the World by Terry Domico
This comprehensive guide covers all bear species worldwide, offering detailed descriptions and insights into their biology, behavior, and distinctions.
The Bears of the World by Ron Hirschi
Ron Hirschi’s book provides valuable information on the characteristics and habits of different bear species, helping readers understand how to differentiate them.
Bear Aware: The Quick Reference Bear Country Survival Guide by Bill Schneider
While focusing on bear safety, this book also contains information on identifying and distinguishing black bears from grizzly bears.
Among the Bears: Raising Orphaned Cubs in the Wild by Benjamin Kilham and Ed Gray
Benjamin Kilham shares his experiences raising orphaned bear cubs of different species, offering insights into their behaviors and differences.
The Great Bear Almanac by Gary Brown
This almanac-style reference book covers bear biology and natural history, including distinctions among bear species.
JSTOR – Variation in Reproductive Biology of Male Black Bears
Journal of Mammalogy – Geographic variation in size, growth, and sexual dimorphism of Alaska brown bears
Researchgate – Growth in length and weight of northern brown bears: differences between sexes and populations
Nature.com – Histological, chemical, and behavioral evidence of pedal communication in brown bears
CTV News – Male black bears more dangerous than females?
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.