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Black Bear
Cool Critter Factoids
Latin Name: Ursus americanus
Habitat: Forest areas of Alaska
Classification: Mammal, omnivore

Although black bears are the most common bears in Alaska and North America, you might have a hard time spotting one. They are shy creatures that remain mostly in forested areas and usually prefer to avoid humans at all costs.

Furry Scramblers
Adult black bears are smaller than grizzly bears and can weigh between 150 and 350 pounds, depending on the season. On all fours, black bears are usually about 2 to 3 feet high at their shoulders and around 5 feet long. Because they hibernate, black bears are heavier and more sluggish in winter. But don't let that fool you--these bears can run swiftly on their paws. They can move over land and through brush at more than 30 miles per hour. Black bears are also powerful swimmers and can easily swim for miles if necessary.

Think about it: Should you try to outrun a black bear?

What's in a name?
You might think that black bears would have black fur. That would make the most sense, right? But in fact, these bears come in a variety of colors. A rare phase of white-colored black bear lives exclusively on certain islands in British Columbia. Alaska has three varieties of black bears. While most of these bears have jet-black fur, others are brown or cinnamon-colored. The lesser-known "glacier bears" or "blue bears" live in Southeast Alaska, near Glacier Bay and Yakutat. These bears grow bluish-gray fur.

Think about it: Where would a blue bear find the best camouflage?

What's that cologne you're wearing?
Black bears can be distinguished from grizzly bears chiefly because of their smaller size. And unlike grizzlies, black bears have thinner, pointed snouts. Their ears are rounded and their eyes and noses are black. They have short tails and claws. Their claws grow less than two inches long, but are sharp and curved. That helps them dig through earth and tear prey. Black bears also use their claws to climb trees, and might do so to avoid danger. They see in color, and their vision is about as sharp as an average human's. They also hear extremely well. However, black bears rely mostly on their noses to detect danger and food sources.

Think about it: How can you tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear?

Sweet Desserts
Black bears have large brains and are generally considered very intelligent animals. They use their knowledge wisely, stealthily avoiding humans and choosing their meals carefully. Their eating habits change with the seasons, as they select their diet based on nutritional value. In winter, black bears seek out dead animal carcasses rich in fats and proteins. After emerging from winter hibernation, black bears eat mostly vegetation. They enjoy a variety of foods including berries, grasses, nuts, grubs, insects, fish, carrion (dead animals) and moose calves. Black bears love blueberries more than any other berry and they select these juicy morsels carefully. They wait until the berries are the ripest before delicately eating them one or two at a time. Some black bears in southern coastal areas of Alaska will eat the barnacles they find in shallow tide pools. Though most people imagine grizzly bears eating salmon, black bears enjoy this delicacy as well. When the salmon are spawning, these bears can fish with the best of them, scanning the water and trapping the salmon with their claws. If they are lucky enough to catch a female salmon, black bears sometimes stomp their paws on the fish to squeeze out its eggs. They gobble up the salmon eggs and enjoy the rich taste and nutrients.

Think about it:
Why don't bears follow low-carb diets?

Heavy Sleepers

Black bears hibernate in a state of deep sleep in the winter. They usually choose caves, rock crevices and hollowed out trees and brush for their dens. They rest for months at a time as their hearts slow down and their bodies burn the fat they've stored during the spring, summer, and fall. Remarkably, black bears don't even have to wake up to go the bathroom for months when they hibernate. Their bodies somehow break down waste internally and conserve the much needed energy throughout the winter.

Think about it: How does the black bear's heart rate help it survive in the winter?

Teddy Bear Cubs
Mother black bears give birth to their cubs in the spring after hibernation. They usually have twins but occasionally give birth to three or four cubs. The cubs weigh less than a pound at birth and are almost hairless. They stay close to their mothers for the first year of their lives, suckling milk and learning to scrounge for food. Young cubs are often rambunctious, wrestling each other in playful competition. While black bears are protective of their young, they don't normally attack humans if they feel cubs are in danger. Ferocious defense of young cubs is a trait more commonly found in grizzly bears.

Think about it: What's more dangerous: grizzly cubs or black bear cubs?

Watch that picnic basket!
Black bears live for 20 to 25 years and have very few predators. Grizzlies kill black bears and wolves hunt their young cubs. These bears rarely die of disease and old age. Unfortunately, most black bears die because of human contact. Car accidents sometimes kill black bears, and humans often hunt them for trophies or shoot them out of fear or self-defense. But black bears rarely go after humans. More than likely, black bears hear or smell humans long before the people are even aware of them. If startled, they generally run away or climb trees for safety. When they do attack, black bears usually have two reasons. In some cases, black bears attack people if they feel threatened. They protect themselves defensively, swatting at humans instead of biting. But because black bears are curious animals always searching for food, they will sometimes attack humans if their hunger drives them. They don't always defend their meals, but will do so if starving. Black bears often search camps and tents, especially if they've learned that careless campsites and garbage dumps are easy sources of food. Black bears are not endangered, but their numbers are declining from frequent human contact.

Think about it:
Why should you always keep your food separate from your camping tent?

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Black Bear

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Image provided by Anchorage Daily News.

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