Explainer: Black bear or brown bear?

Don’t rely on color to tell these bears apart

a mother brown bear and baby brown bear in a field of yellow flowers

This is a brown bear (and its cub!). Yes, it is brown. But better clues are the hump on its back, rounded ears and a ruff of fur around its face. And its rump is lower than its shoulders. The photo was taken in Jasper National Park in Canada.

benkrut/iStock/Getty Images Plus

You might think it’s easy to tell whether you’re seeing a black bear (Ursus americanus) or a brown bear, which is sometimes called a grizzly bear (Ursus arctos). After all, one is black, and one is brown, right? Well, not quite. Some grizzly bears can be very dark. Some black bears can be brown, grey, cinnamon-colored or even white.

Here are some tips for what to look for to tell a black bear from a brown bear.

  1. Location: Black bears are found all over North America. Brown bears prefer cooler places, such as Yellowstone National Park or other northern parts of the United States and Canada. In fact, 95 percent of the brown bears in the United States live in Alaska. So if you see a bear in Florida, it’s a black bear. But if you see one in Canada, it could be a black or a brown bear.
  2. Size: On all fours, a brown bear is about one to 1.5 meters (3 to 5 feet) high at the shoulder (and far taller when standing). A black bear is smaller, about 0.6 to one meter high (2 to 3.5 feet) when walking. But black bears can be bigger, and brown bears can be smaller.
  3. Shoulders: Brown bears have a hump on their shoulders, and their rear end is lower than their shoulders. Black bears don’t have a hump, and their rumps are higher than their shoulders. Rear in the air? It’s a black bear.
  4. Face: Brown bears have a thick ruff of fur around their faces, while black bears have slimmer, sleeker necks. Brown bears also have shorter, rounded ears. Black bear ears are pointier.
  5. Claws: Brown bears have long straighter claws, a bit like a dog’s. Black bears have shorter, curved claws, more like a cat’s. Hopefully you never get close enough to see these.
  6. Tracks: A brown bear’s footprint will allow you to draw a straight line between the pad of the foot and the toes. A black bear’s footprint won’t — the line will have to cross a toe.
an illustration of a grizzly bearan illustration of a black bear

Is it a black bear? Or a brown bear (a grizzly)? Here's how to tell the difference.

Left: NPSRight: NPS

If you see a bear, don’t panic! Most bears don’t want to see you either. Instead, introduce yourself. Talk to the bear in a normal voice, so that it knows you are a human. Wave your arms and do what you can to make yourself look large. Move away slowly by moving sideways, so the bear doesn’t see you as a threat.

To lessen your chance of seeing a bear, it’s a good idea to travel in groups when in bear country. Groups make more noise, so bears will hear you coming and know to get out of the way. If you are in a place where bears are very common, you can also carry bear spray. But make sure you learn how to use it.

And don’t feed the bears. They might look cute, but wild bears are best left to wild dining. If they get used to seeing humans as a source of a snack, it’s the bears who will end up in trouble.    

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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