Describing bears: some useful terminology

On specialized bear tours led by an expert company, you’ll have the opportunity to see these majestic and fascinating mammals up close. When you’re out in the field, you may hear your naturalist guide use some unfamiliar words to describe the animals you’re seeing. Below you can familiarize yourself with some of the language that is commonly used to describe bears.

Some basic descriptive terms

Any adult bear you see can be classified as a boar or sow. The first refers to men and the second to women. Across all species, the warthog is usually much larger than the female, with the largest size differences occurring between male and female polar bears. Young bears are called cubs and are born in litters of one to three. They are born blind, bald and defenseless, so they depend on their mother for the first two years of their lives. It can be rare to catch a glimpse of a sow and her cubs on bear tours, as the mothers tend to be very protective.

Describing bearskin

In zoological terms, the skin, hair, or wool of an animal is described as its fur. Fur can vary greatly between bear species. Brown bears, for example, have much coarser and hairier fur than that of the black bear. The fur of many bears will consist of a dense coat covered with longer, thicker guard hairs. The guard hairs help the bear shed water and snow, while the thick fur acts primarily as insulation.

You may see different coat colors, or phases, in the same species of bear. For example, the American Black Bear can be black, brown, tan, blond, and even white, in the case of the Kermode or “spirit bear.”

Bears shed or shed annually, usually in early summer. As the weather gets warmer, they shed their winter coats for a shorter, cooler summer coat. Wildlife enthusiasts on bear tours in the spring or early summer may spot a bear in mid-molt, distinguished by a patchy and somewhat scruffy coat.

Describing bear paws and claws

The bear’s paws and claws are its most valuable tools and are used for digging, climbing, swimming, and catching prey. Although leg shapes and sizes differ from species to species, all have plantigrade legs. Animals that exhibit plantigrade locomotion walk with their toes and midfoot bones (called metatarsals) resting on the ground. Humans also walk this way. By contrast, dogs and cats exhibit digitigrade locomotion (walking on their toes), while deer and other hoofed animals walk in a hoofed manner.

The soles of the feet are bare and leathery to provide good traction. In polar bears, the surface of the feet is covered with small bumps, called papillae, that prevent them from skating on the ice. Bears tend to lose a lot of body heat through their paws, which is why the polar bear has adapted with slightly hairier toes and paws than its cousins.

Bear claws differ in sharpness and length from species to species. The black bear has very sharp, dexterous paws that help it climb trees, while the brown bear has blunter, larger and more curved paws for digging. The polar bear has very wide paws, which help it distribute its weight as it walks on the snow, like a snowshoe.

Bear tours are the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in the wonderful world of wildlife. Becoming familiar with the language of wildlife is an important step in understanding the animals you are observing. Along the way, you might become an expert in the field.

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