The New International Encyclopædia/Bear

BEAR, bâr (AS. bera, Ger. Bär, possibly akin to Lat. fera, wild beast, Gk. φήρ, phēr, beast, Skt. bhalla, bear). A large, shaggy plantigrade beast of prey, representing the carnivorous family Ursidæ. Bears are native to all the wilder parts of Europe, Asia (with its closely adjacent islands), North America, and the Andean region, but are absent from Africa, except the Atlas Mountains, and Australasia. As they thrive in confinement, they have always been familiar objects in menageries, and are thus among the best-known of beasts.

Characteristics. Most bears are bulky, and some exceed in size any other carnivore; but this appearance of bulk is largely due to the looseness of the skin, the length of the coarse fur of their coats, the lack of a visible tail, and the comparative shortness of their legs, the whole sole of the foot being pressed to the ground, instead of the toes only, as in most carnivores. In their relationships they stand between the dogs and the fur-bearers (Mustellidæ), but their nearest relatives are the raccoons. Their fossil ancestry is largely represented, and may be traced back to generalized forms in the early Tertiary, whence both dogs and bears seem to have descended by divergent lines.

NIE 1905 Bear - skull.jpg


Skull of a young grizzly, showing characteristic dentition.

The bear's head is broad and massive, with extended and somewhat pointed jaws, well furnished with teeth, but lacking the muscular power possessed by dogs. They have 6 cutting teeth above and 6 below, 1 canine tooth on each side in each jaw, with 4 false molars and 2 molars (or grinders) on each side above, and 4 false molars and 3 molars below. The false molars in general are soon shed. The true molars are very large, and have tuberculous crowns suitable for grinding the vegetable food which forms a large part of their fare, and which the loose articulation of the jaw permits. The skeleton is massive and the muscles ‘plated’ and of very great length, while the feet are armed with powerful claws adapted to digging in the ground and to moving or tearing to pieces logs or rocks. All but the heaviest bears are able to climb trees. Their ordinary movements are slow and rather clumsy; yet, when impelled by rage or fear, they will run for a short distance, upon level ground, with a speed that taxes a horse to follow, and will make their way over rocks, rough ice, or up and down steep declivities, or among trees, with surprising quickness and agility. Their eyes are small and their eyesight is probably not very effective; but their hearing, though the ears are externally small, round, and furry, is acute, and their sense of smell is keen. Unless provoked or fearful for the safety of their young, they are not usually aggressive in disposition, but are likely to display curiosity, rising upright upon their hind legs and surveying the intruder calmly. They are rarely cowardly, and when angered or brought to bay will defend themselves or attack most fiercely, seeking to strike their enemy down, or to seize him in a crushing hug and tear him to pieces with their teeth. The larger northern bears are, therefore, justly regarded as very dangerous beasts.

Food and Reproduction.—Bears are adapted by their teeth and digestive organs to a wide variety in food, and no animal is more omnivorous. Besides the flesh of such animals as they can capture, including pigs, calves, colts, and sheep, they eat fish (the chief diet with some species) and reptiles. They are also fond of fruits, berries, bulbous roots, leaves, herbs, grass, and birds' eggs, and of insects and honey, for which they will dig up ant-hills and tear to pieces bees' nests and logs. They require an abundance of water, and are not loth to enter it, some species being remarkably strong swimmers. They go about in pairs, or sometimes in small bands, and are diurnal rather than nocturnal in their habits, though often abroad at night. Each family has some sort of lair in a cave, dense thicket, or some similar place, varying with the circumstances; and there, in the early spring, are brought forth from one to four (usually two) young, which will remain with the mother until fairly well grown. The period of gestation is about seven months. In cold countries the birth of the young finds the mother still in hibernation, which is more or less complete for all the northern species, according to the degree of cold and the amount of snow, which prevents their seeking or obtaining much food. Hence, when they come out in the spring they are likely to be thin and weak. The voice of bears is expressed in whines and coughing growls.

Fur.—The skin of bears forms a fur pelt useful for robes, overcoats, and rugs, and increasing in value with its growing rarity. A complete and ornamentally mounted skin, in the form of a rug, is worth in New York from $75 to $1000 for that of a polar bear, $100 to $500 for a grizzly, and $50 to $250 for a black or brown bear. The flesh is good food, the fat is valuable for the unguent called bear's grease, and the teeth and claws are turned into ornaments by civilized as well as savage artisans.

Classification. The classification of bears is not yet satisfactorily determined, for several so-called species of wide distribution vary and blend confusingly. Naturalists of good judgment have even asserted that all the brown and black bears of the world are identical in species, leaving only the polar bear as another species. Ordinarily, however, the following species are recognized: Polar Bear, and perhaps the Brown Bear (Circumpolar), Brown Bear, Himalayan Black Bear, Japanese Bear, Sloth Bear, and Sun Bear (Old World); Black Bear, Grizzly, Glacier Bear, Kadiak, Dall's Alaskan, and Barren-ground Bears—the last three, perhaps varieties of the Brown Bear (North America); Spectacled Bear (South America). See Plate of Bears.

Polar, White, or Ice Bear. The Polar Bear (Ursus, or Thalassarctus maritimus) is an inhabitant of the entire Arctic regions, where it seems to be extremely numerous upon all coasts and islands, and may wander a vast distance from land upon the ice, or even by swimming, for it has been encountered in the open sea many miles from shore, and sometimes drifts a long way south on ice-floes. In color it is creamy white, with black claws, and the color does not change to white in winter, as is the case with most Arctic animals. It is one of the largest of bears, and has an elongated neck and straight head, so that specimens may exceed 9 feet from nose to tail. Its limbs are comparatively slender, its feet disproportionately long and hairy upon the soles, giving it a firm hold upon the ice and power in swimming. Its food is mainly seals, which it captures both on land (or ice) and in the water, with great activity and cunning; but it also feeds upon such fish as it can catch in shallows or find dead, and in summer it regales itself on marine grass. Its sense of smell enables it to detect concealed food, and Arctic travelers find it difficult to build ‘caches’ strong enough to withstand its efforts. Although a dweller in the coldest and most wintry part of the globe, this bear is abroad at all seasons, and brings forth its young in no better chamber than a cavern scratched in the snow, which may cover the mother and her nursing young for many days before she is able to lead forth the cubs.

The ‘European’ Brown Bear has been well known in captivity, as well as wild, ever since the days of the Roman arena, and it is still a resident in every ‘zoo’ and the docile companion of wandering ‘bear-tamers.’ It survived in Great Britain until nearly the Twelfth Century, and is still to be found in the Pyrenees, eastern Alps, and thence through Russia, Syria, and Central and Northern Asia to the Himalayas and Kamchatka. It is probable, also, that the so-called barren-ground bear of the Hudson Bay region and the great brown bears of Alaska (see below) are geographical races of this species, of which, also, the almost white isabelline, or snow bear, of the Himalayas, and the Syrian bear (mentioned in the Bible and still ranging the mountains of Palestine) are local varieties. Everywhere it is a solitary denizen of forests and mountains, affording good sport in Europe, and of great service to the barbarians of northeastern Asia, who depend largely upon it for food and clothing. It is too well known to require particular description. For its history as an object of ancient sport and its employment in ‘bear baiting,’ etc., consult Harting, British Animals Extinct Within Historic Times (London, 1880).

The Himalayan Black Bear (Ursus torquatus) and the Japanese Bear (Ursus japonicus) are rather smaller species, usually glossy black. They resemble the American black bears, and are held in high respect by sportsmen.

The Sun Bear, or Bruang (Ursus Malayanus), of the Malayan Peninsula, Java, Sumatra, and Borneo, represents a distinct genus (Helarctus), in the view of many students, which is known also by several fossil species, including the huge Cave Bear (Ursus spelæus) of ancient Europe, supposed to have been exterminated by prehistoric man. The size is much less than that of either the brown or the sloth-bear, the head broad and short, the fur short and close, and the tongue and lips remarkably strong and flexible. With this go very long, strong claws, fitted for tearing to pieces ant-hills and other insect retreats, whose inhabitants are easily gathered by means of the extensile, glutinous mouth. It inhabits dense mountain jungles and climbs expertly. Its color is black, marked with a white crescent (orange in the Bornean variety) on the breast. It is peaceably inclined, but fierce and aggressive when brought to bay, rising upon its hind legs and attacking with its long, sharp claws; but taken young, or bred in captivity, it becomes an amusing and somewhat intelligent ally of the showman. One kept as a pet by Sir Stafford Raffles, the most prominent of the early English governors and describers of Malaya, has become famous in ursine chronicles.

The Aswail, Sloth-Bear, or Honey-Bear (Ursus, or Melursus, labiatus) is a species inhabiting the jungles of all Peninsular India and Ceylon, and is the juggler's bear of that region, where its facial grimaces and generally comical appearance are of great service to the wandering showman. This quaintness of countenance is due to the toothless condition of the front of the gums, where the incisors are lost in early youth, and to the fact that the lips are very long, and they and the whole snout are soft, extensile, and mobile to a surprising degree. These and other features are so pronounced that this bear has been separated in the genus Melursus by most students. It is submissive and teachable in captivity; but in freedom, when it habitually makes its home in some rocky cave in the jungle, it is brave and held in much respect by hunters. Its size equals that of the brown bear, yet it climbs about fruit-trees with great ease. Its fur is peculiar, long, shaggy, and unkempt, remotely suggesting that of a sloth, and black in color, except for the whiteness of the muzzle and space about the eyes and a conspicuous V-shaped white mark on the breast. It seems to eat very little flesh, but lives mainly on fruit and insects, especially ants, termites, and the combs of honey-bees, in securing which its extensile lips and tongue find their special use; hence the term ‘honey-bear.’

The American Bears are confusingly alike, and conservative naturalists are unwilling to admit the reality of so many species as are distinguished in the list below. It is even questioned whether the Spectacled Bear (Ursus ornatus) of the high forests of the central Andes be not merely an isolated variety of the black bear, distinguished by its small size and the yellowish, goggle-like rings around its eyes. The latest account of the North American Ursidæ (Elliot, Synopsis of the Mammals of North America, Chicago, 1901) makes the following list of subgenera and species, following the views of Dr. C. Hart Merriam: Polar Bear, Ursus (Thalassarctus) maritimus; Kadiak Bear, Ursus (Ursus) Middendorffi; Dall's Bear, Ursus (Ursus) Dalli; Grizzly Bear, Urus (Danis) horribilis; Barren-ground Bear, Ursus (Danis) Richardsoni; Black Bear, Ursus (Euarctus) Americanus, Louisiana Bear, Ursus (Euarctus) Iuteolus; Florida Bear, Ursus (Euarctus) Floridans; Glacier Bear, Ursus (Euarctus) Emmonsi.

The Kadiak Bear attains the largest size of all known hears, and is the most bulky of carnivores, specimens not regarded as the heaviest having weighed 1200 pounds; many, however, are comparatively small. This huge species was discovered to science about 1895, on Kadiak Island, Alaska, where it is said to be numerous, but hard to get; and it is also believed to range the forested mountains of the neighboring mainland. It seems to subsist mainly on fish, which it scoops from the water with its paws, especially at the season when the streams are filled with salmon and other species ascending them to spawn. In color this bear “varies greatly among individuals, being of various shades and combinations of dark and yellowish browns.” Dall's, or the Sitka Bear, seems separable from the Kadiak only by fine points of skull-structure. It inhabits the Alaskan coast country, between Copper River and Baranov Island. Both of these ‘species’ are regarded by some naturalists as local varieties of the Siberian race of brown bears, and by others as local races of the grizzly.

The Grizzly Bear of western North America is perhaps, on the average, the largest, and certainly is the most formidable of the family. It is justly regarded by sportsmen as the most dangerous beast in America, and at close quarters is the equal of any elsewhere in its reckless courage, muscular power, and ability for offense; the name horribilis, however, was a mere translation by Ord of his ‘grisly’ into Latin, and refers to color, not to character. When the mountain men speak of it as ‘Old Ephraim,’ they pay the respect of knowledge to power. Its range, before the encroachments of civilization, was northern Mexico to the Arctic Circle, and from the Pacific Coast eastward into the plains east of the Rockies as far as circumstances favored, probably as far as the great bison herds were wont to travel; but everywhere it preferred forests. It is still to be found throughout the higher parts of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, increasing in frequency toward the north, and reaching its acme of both size and numbers in Alaska. The size varies greatly, but a length of 9 feet and a weight of 1000 pounds are given as dimensions reached by many specimens. Their color is equally variable, the typical form being described by Elliot as “usually brownish yellow, with a blackish dorsal stripe; mane reddish brown, darkest near tips of hairs, which are brownish yellow or brown; legs generally black or blackish brown.” Some specimens (‘silvertips’) are prevailingly light gray, due to the points of the hairs being white; others (‘cinnamons’) are warmly reddish, and others nearly coal black. Their habits and methods of life seem as diverse as their appearance and habitat.

These great bears hibernate little, if any, and are abroad by day as well as by night; range the heated plains or jungly valleys, or climb to the snowy peaks with equal ease. Often they go alone, but frequently travel in pairs or gather in small herds. One striking peculiarity, due, perhaps, to their great weight, is that they never climb trees, even as cubs. Nothing edible comes amiss as food. In former days they seized upon the stupid buffalo, and were able to vanquish even the heavy bulls by the weight and tearing power of their mighty paws, and in these days range-cattle are frequently destroyed; while those of the northwest coast region are expert in scooping up fish, and subsist largely on salmon and the like. All are fearless of water. Although so terrible when enraged, there is no evidence that the grizzly is more quarrelsome than other species; and the tales of an undying feud between it and the black bear or the puma are largely romances. The attitude of these bears toward mankind cannot be stated dogmatically, nor foreseen in any particular instance. They may quietly withdraw or run away in a panic (as the present writer has known them to do), or stand their ground without aggression if let alone; on the other hand, many a man has lost his life by a totally unexpected and terrifically impetuous attack. Says J. H. Porter (Wild Beasts, 1894, p. 371), in a wise summary:

“No writer of any note except General Marcy has, as far as the author knows, denied that a grizzly bear soon comes to bay, and that he then devotes his energies to destruction with entire single-mindedness. Those who have met him, alike with those who have acquainted themselves with any completeness with the observations of others, know that this brute's patience under aggression is of the briefest, and his inherent ferocity easily aroused. When it is injured, the animal is exceptionally desperate, and fights from the first as a lion, tiger, and jaguar are apt to do only in their death rally. Colonel Dodge expresses the best opinions upon this point in saying that ‘when wounded, a grizzly bear attacks with the utmost ferocity, and regardless of the number and nature of his assailants. Then he is, without doubt, the most formidable and dangerous of wild beasts.’ ‘In some way it has come about,’ says Lockwood, ‘that . . . Bruin has secured for himself an almost superstitious respect.’ The way he did so has just been mentioned. Men had reason to fear him, and their veneration followed as a matter of course. It was because he proved ‘most formidable and dangerous’ that Schwatka found among the Chilkat Indians the highest clan called brown bears, and for a like reason the native warrior wore his claws as a badge of honor. Ferocity, prowess, and tenacity of life appear most conspicuously in accounts of actual conflict. Enough has been said with respect to the first-named trait, and no one ever called the others in question.”

The Indians and early hunters captured the animal in pitfalls and very strong traps, or worried it to death by numerous shots. A single bullet fortunately planted in heart or brain may overcome it, but it has been known to survive many heavy balls. It remains one of the prime objects of sportsmen's ambition, and one of the most valuable prizes of the professional hunter, since its pelt, when in good condition, will bring a large price in the market.

These remarks apply in a greater or less degree to the Alaskan bears already mentioned, and to the Barren-ground Bear, a smaller, whitish-brown form inhabiting the treeless regions between Hudson Bay and the Coppermine River, whose separate specific identity is still subject to discussion.

The Black Bear remains to be described. It is more widespread than any other in America, being found primitively wherever forests existed on the Continent north of Mexico. Civilization has restricted this area of residence; yet these bears remain wherever any considerable tracts of forest exist, and are frequently a pest to farmers by their forays upon the pig-sty and sheepfold. Their size varies, but never reaches the bigness of the grizzly; the color seems normally black, but varies through brown and reddish to yellow. Some so-called ‘cinnamon’ bears are of this species, and some are grizzlies. Their habits and food are closely similar to those of the European Brown Bear, with which some writers consider them specifically identical. They climb trees easily, are courageous, and may be very ugly customers when brought to bay, but are not often aggressive toward men. Those of Texas and Florida are by some regarded as separate species, but most naturalists consider them geographical varieties.

Possibly this is equally true of the small Glacier Bear, first described in 1895, which inhabits the Saint Elias Alps of the central coast region of Alaska; but this will probably be found a tenable ‘species.’ It is smaller than the average of black bears, and unique in its color, which is hoary gray, closely resembling that of a silver-fox, most nearly white on the under surfaces. “The fur is not very long, but remarkably soft, and with a rich under fur of a bluish-black shade, numbers of the long hairs being white” or white-tipped. The sides of the face are bright tan, and the claws are small, much curved, sharp, and black. Little is known as yet as to the special habits or food of this interesting little bear.

Bibliography. In addition to standard works, consult: Mivart, Proceedings Zoölogical Society of London (London, 1885); Blanford, Fauna of British India: Mammals (London, 1888); Pollok, Sport in British Burmah (London, 1879); Hornaday, Two Years in the Jungle (New York, 1886); Baker, Wild Beasts and their Ways (London, 1890); Sanderson, Thirteen Years Among Wild Beasts in India (London, 1893), and other books of East Indian travel and sport; Reid, Bruin, or the Grand Bear Hunt (London, 1860); Richardson, Fauna Boreali Americana (London, 1837), and Arctic explorations generally for the polar bear; Roosevelt, The Wilderness Hunter (New York, 1893); Proctor, Wild Beasts (New York, 1894); Ward, Century Magazine, Vol. I. (New York, 1882); Merriam, Proceedings Biological Society of Washington (Washington, 1896).


NIE 1905 Bear.jpg

1. INDIAN SLOTH BEAR (Melursus ursinus). 3. GRIZZLY BEAR (Ursus horribilis).
2. MALAYAN SUN-BEAR (Ursus malayanus). 4. POLAR BEAR (Ursus maritimus).
5. AMERICAN BLACK BEAR (Ursus americanus).