Why Do Bears Play?


I was lucky enough to see some bear cubs playing with each other recently, and they were constantly making me laugh. I wanted to look into the many different ways that they play, and the reasons behind it.

Bears play for many reasons including fun, sport, recreation, but also to teach them how to survive in the wild.

If you want to know about the many ways that bears and bear clubs play, then please read on. There are also videos of some very cute bear cubs playing.

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Why Do Bears Play?

Most play by bears is done when bears are young cubs, and this is for good reason. Bears use play to teach them survival skills which are necessary for their lives in the wild. Cubs will stay with their mothers whilst feeding from them for the first 1.5 – 2.5 years but may stay with them until they are up to four years old.

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Bear cubs in these first few years learn many skills they need to survive on their own in the wild, and a lot of this is done through play.

Survival Skills

There are many ways that bears prepare for life in the wild by playing. Grizzly bear cubs can be seen to spend many hours wrestling with their siblings, either on the ground or on their hind legs, standing upright.

Bears chase each other, as they would with prey later on in life. They roll and tumble around, getting them ready for scrapes and bruises in the many habitats they may encounter.

Later in life, they may need to fight, and this early play with their siblings gets them ready for later altercations. Bear cubs will bite, wrestle, and box with their siblings. They have even been seen to shadow box. They will slap and shove each other, chasing each other until they get tired.

Siblings will also run after each other, playing tag. When caught they will often jump and pounce on each other, mouthing, nipping and nibbling on each other. Hide and seek is a good way to practice how to hide from another predator, and is also a good way of catching unsuspecting prey. Cubs will often surprise each other by jumping out of a hiding spot, pouncing on the others.

Bear cubs love to climb and will climb rocks, logs, trees, and even their mother. They crawl through and will swim through hollow logs, helping them to prepare for a quick escape.

Cubs will also climb onto their mothers, and embrace closely with them, crowding against them, and staying close to their legs, protecting them.

Bear cubs are excellent climbers and will climb trees. This is the only time in their life that grizzly bears will climb, as their bodies are much heavier in later life, and their paws are not adapted to climbing. Bear cubs are very quick at both ascending and descending a tree, with their boundless energy making short work of most sizes of trees.

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Polar bears usually stay with their mothers for the first three years after birth. They learn by following the example set by the sow. The cubs will imitate their mother, sniffing when she sniffs to find food. When the mother freezes when walking, the cubs freeze too, again imitating her. When the mother lays down, so do the cubs, but being young they may get bored and distracted. The mother uses her discipline to keep them calm and to focus them.

By the time they are three years old, they are usually large enough to hunt on their own.

Fun

Bear cubs also use their play to have fun. Most of the play already described could also be included in this section, as bear cubs always seem to be having fun, whether at their own, their mothers or their sibling’s expense.

Cubs love to slide, roll and tumble around. They have been seen to slide down the ice into water, with one person describing a bear, who slid down some ice, over the side of a glacier, falling fifty feet into the water, before getting out, climbing back up and doing it again.

Cubs will slide down ice, down banks of snow, and even down riverbanks into rivers and lakes. They will also slide off their mothers after climbing onto them.

Bear cub

Bears are excellent at acrobatics, making spectacular leaps from items they have climbed on. Rocks and trees are especially popular launching pads for them, with some hanging upside down from trees.

Cubs like to hang off trees, with one story I was told about where a cub was hanging on the edge of the tree, with its sibling weighing it down at one end. Once that cub knew that he was weighing the tree down, he let go, sending the other flying through the air. That cub came straight back and they started the process again, with the other cub hanging from the tree, waiting for his turn to fly.

Cubs can also be seen standing on their heads, for no apparent reason other than they enjoy doing it, much the same way we do. They will also try to flip themselves, although most I have seen land on their large heads.

Cubs are not scared of water, and will quite happily enter a river or lake, although generally not without their mother’s watchful eye. They will splash each other, and even dunk each other under the water. They have also been seen diving into water from ledges, outlooks and trees. Cubs have also been seen to grab their hind paws, and roll around in the water.

Similarly, cubs do not mind getting dirty. Again they will grab their hind paws, rolling around in the mud, or lying on their back, kicking with their paws.

Bear cub

Cubs will play with objects such as small rocks, twigs and driftwood. They will throw these in the air, trying successfully and unsuccessfully to catch them.

As with dogs, bears have also been seen to chase their tails, trying to catch them. Although small, bears do have tails, and they seem to have an endless fascination trying to catch them, once they notice them.

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Do Adult Bears Play?

We can see that bears play for different reasons, and it is mainly cubs that use these interactions and games as a way of teaching themselves skills that they will need to survive on their own later in life.

Adult bears do play but it is much rarer due to their solitary life. Male polar bears play fight in autumn, but this is used as a way to practice and to get them ready for the much rougher battles they will face in spring.

The fights they have in spring are for dominance and for the honor of being able to mate with a female. Although usually not fatal, the spring fights can cause superficial injuries, with some broken teeth and bones. Without the earlier play fighting, these fights would be much more deadly.

Some black bears will also play fight as adults, but this generally only happens with male bears, and when food is abundant in the area. Female bears do not play with others as adults.

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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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