Bears are one of the most recognisable and iconic families of animals. The eight living species include the spectacled, sun and sloth bears alongside the more familiar polar bear and giant panda. Young bears are born in protective dens as they are very small, blind and deaf. But they are not helpless for long, developing and gaining weight rapidly.
Most bears are very general in their habitats; they can be found roaming Arctic tundra, tropical forests and even deserts. Six species also have an opportunistic and varied diet relying on the habitat and season for their selection of animals and plants. The two dietary specialists are the mostly carnivorous polar bear and the bamboo-eating giant panda.
Scientific name: Ursidae
The shading illustrates the diversity of this group - the darker the colour the greater the number of species. Data provided by WWF's Wildfinder.
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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, Central 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.