Published on 28 Dec 2013 | over 2 years ago
Bears are mammals of the family Ursidae. They are caniforms, or doglike carnivorans, with the pinnipeds being their closest living relatives. Although only eight species of bears are extant, they are widespread, appearing in a wide variety of habitats throughout the Northern Hemisphere and partially in the Southern Hemisphere. Bears are found on the continents of North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.
Common characteristics of modern bears include large bodies with stocky legs, long snouts, shaggy hair, plantigrade paws with five nonretractile claws, and short tails. The polar bear is mostly carnivorous, the giant panda feeds almost entirely on bamboo, and the remaining six species are omnivorous with varied diets.
Except courting individuals and mothers with their young, bears are typically solitary animals. They are generally diurnal, but may be active during the night (nocturnal) or twilight (crepuscular) particularly around humans. Bears possess an excellent sense of smell and, despite their heavy build and awkward gait, are adept runners, climbers, and swimmers. In autumn, some bear species forage much fermented fruit, which affects their behaviour. Bears den in caves and burrows; most species occupy their dens during the winter for a long period (up to 100 days) of sleep that resembles hibernation.
Bears have been hunted since prehistoric times for their meat and fur. With their tremendous physical presence and charisma, they play a prominent role in the arts, mythology, and other cultural aspects of various human societies. In modern times, the bears' existence has been pressured through the encroachment on their habitats and the illegal trade of bears and bear parts, including the Asian bile bear market. The IUCN lists six bear species as vulnerable or endangered, and even least concern species, such as the brown bear, are at risk of extirpation in certain countries. The poaching and international trade of these most threatened populations are prohibited, but still ongoing.
The giant panda's taxonomy (subfamily Ailuropodinae) has long been debated. Its original classification by Armand David in 1869 was within the bear genus Ursus, but in 1870, it was reclassified by Alphonse Milne-Edwards to the raccoon family. In recent studies, the majority of DNA analyses suggest the giant panda has a much closer relationship to other bears and should be considered a member of the family Ursidae. Estimates of divergence dates place the giant panda as the most ancient offshoot among living taxa within Ursidae, having split from other bears 17.9 to 22.1 Mya. The red panda was included within Ursidae in the past. However, more recent research does not support such a conclusion, and instead places it in its own family Ailuridae, in superfamily Musteloidea along with Mustelidae, Procyonidae, and Mephitidae. Multiple similarities between the two pandas, including the presence of false thumbs, are thus thought to represent an example of convergent evolution for feeding primarily on bamboo.
Unlike their neighbors elsewhere, the brown bears of Alaska's ABC Islands evidently are more closely related to polar bears than to other brown bears in the world. Researchers Gerald Shields and Sandra Talbot of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology studied the DNA of several samples of the species and found their DNA is different from that of other brown bears. The discovery has shown, while all other brown bears share a brown bear as their closest relative, those of Alaska's ABC Islands differ and share their closest relation with the polar bear. Also, the very rare Tibetan blue bear is a type of brown bear. This animal has never been photographed.
Koalas are often referred to as bears due to their appearance; they are not bears, however, but are marsupials.
The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is a large bear distributed across much of northern Eurasia and North America. Adult bears generally weigh between 100 and 635 kg (220 and 1,400 lb). Its largest subspecies, the Kodiak bear, rivals the polar bear as the largest member of the bear family and as the largest land-based predator. There are several recognized subspecies within the brown bear species. In North America, two types of the subspecies Ursus arctos horribilis are generally recognized—the coastal brown bear and the inland grizzly bear; these two types broadly define the range of sizes of all brown bear subspecies. An adult grizzly living inland in Yukon may weigh as little as 80 kg (180 lb), while an adult coastal brown bear in nearby coastal Alaska living on a steady, nutritious diet of spawning salmon may weigh as much as 680 kg (1,500 lb). The exact number of overall brown subspecies remains in debate.