I was lucky to see some bear cubs playing recently in the wild, and they were having so much fun. I could tell that playing was a great way of learning for them.
Bears play for many reasons, including fun, sport, and recreation. Play is essential for young cubs to teach them how to survive in the wild and escape predators, fight, and swim.
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Why Do Bears Play?
Young cubs mainly do playing. Play is essential to teach them survival skills for their wild lives. Cubs will stay with their mothers while feeding for up to two years but may remain with them until they are up to four years old. Cubs learn many skills they need to survive on their own in the wild, which is done through play.
Bears Use Play To Learn Survival Skills
Bears use play as a way of preparing for life in the wild. Grizzly bear cubs spend many hours wrestling with their siblings, standing upright on the ground or on their hind legs.
Later in life, bears may need to fight, and this early play with their siblings gets them ready for later encounters. Bear cubs will bite and wrestle with their siblings and have been seen to shadowbox. They will slap and shove each other and be seen chasing each other until they get tired.
Bears chase each other as they do when they stalk prey. They roll and tumble around, something they must get used to when traveling through their habitat.
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 an excellent way to practice hiding from predators and also a good way of catching unsuspecting prey. Cubs often surprise each other by jumping out of a hiding spot and pouncing on their sibling.
Bear cubs love to climb rocks, logs, and trees. They crawl through and swim through hollow logs, helping them prepare for a quick escape.
Cubs will climb onto their mothers, embrace them, crowd against them, and stay close to their legs. This is for protection in their first few years of life.
Bear cubs are excellent climbers and will climb trees. This is the only time in their life that grizzly bears can climb, as their bodies are much heavier in later life, and their paws are not adapted to climbing as black bears are.
Bear cubs are very quick at ascending and descending a tree, with their energy making short work of most trees.
Polar bear cubs usually stay with their mothers for the first three years after birth. They learn to hunt by following the example set by the adult female. The cubs will imitate their mother, sniffing when she sniffs to find food.
When the mother freezes while walking, the cubs freeze, imitating her behavior. When the mother lays down, so do the cubs, but being young, they often get bored and distracted.
The mother uses her discipline to keep them calm. By the time they are three years old, they are usually large enough to hunt independently.
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Bear Cubs Play For Fun
Whether at their own, their mothers, or their sibling’s expense, bear cubs want to have fun. Cubs love to slide, roll and tumble around. They have been seen sliding over 50 feet of ice into the water before getting out, climbing back up, and doing it again.
Cubs will slide down ice, banks of snow, and riverbanks into rivers and lakes. They will even slide off their mothers after climbing onto them.
Cubs like to hang off trees, and I heard a story from a ranger of a cub hanging on the edge of the tree, with its sibling weighing it down at one end. Once the cub knew 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 for enjoyment. They will also try to flip themselves, although most land on their heads.
Cubs are not scared of water and will happily enter a river or lake. They splash each other and even dunk each other under the water. They have also been seen diving into water from ledges and trees. Cubs can often be seen grabbing their hind paws and rolling around in a circle in the water.
Cubs do not mind getting dirty. They will grab their hind paws, roll around in the mud, or lie on their back, kicking with their feet.
Cubs will play with 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 have tails and seem to have an endless fascination with trying to catch them once they notice them.
Want to know more about bear tails? Find out here in another article I have written.
Do Adult Bears Play?
We can see that bears play for different reasons, and it is mainly cubs that use these games to teach themselves skills that they will need to survive on their own.
Adult bears play, but it is much rarer due to their solitary life. Male polar bears play fight in autumn, which prepares them for the much rougher battles they will face in spring.
Their fights in spring are for dominance and to mate with a female. Although usually not fatal, spring fights can cause superficial injuries, with broken teeth and bones. However, these fights would be much more deadly without the earlier play fighting.
Some black bears will also play fight as adults, but this generally only happens with male black bears in areas with abundant food sources. Female bears do not play with others as adults.
Do you know if bears can swim? Find out here
References and Further Reading
“Mammals of North America” by Roland W. Kays and Don E. Wilson
“The Diversity of Mammals” by P. D. Gingerich
“Thermoregulation in Mammals and Birds” by Peter J. Butler
“The Biology of Marsupials” by M. Archer
“The Thermal Biology of Desert Organisms” by J. Diamond and T. Case