Black bears can actually be black, brown or white.
American black bears (Ursus americanus), often simply called black bears, are the most common bears in North America. They live in northern Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. Black bears are smaller than brown bears (Ursus arctos) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus), making them the smallest of the three species of bears in North America.
Black bears are excellent climbers and use their curved claws to scale trees and access food, such as nuts and honeycombs. On the ground, they are powerful runners and can reach speeds of up to 35 mph (56 km/h), according to the U.S National Park Service (NPS).
Black bears are usually black, as their name suggests, but their coats may also be brown, cinnamon-colored or even white, according to the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA). This coat variation means they’re occasionally mistaken for brown bears, especially where the ranges of the two species overlap in the northwest of the U.S. and Canada.
Black bears are usually about 3 feet (0.9 meters) tall at the shoulder when standing on all fours, and up to 7 feet (2.1 m) tall when standing upright on two legs, according to the NPS. Brown bears are a bit bigger, typically 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 m) tall at the shoulder and almost 9 feet (2.7 m) tall when standing upright.
A black bear’s size and weight vary depending on its age and the time of year. Male black bears are up to 60% bigger than females, weighing up to 660 pounds (300 kilograms), while females only reach 175 lbs. (80 kg), according to the IBA. In contrast, male brown bears can weigh up to 860 lbs. (390 kg) and females up to 455 lbs. (205 kg).
Although brown bears are bigger than black bears and usually have lighter-colored coats, the NPS suggests that other characteristics, such as the shape of the bear’s body and their tracks, are a more reliable way to identify each species. Black bears do not have a pronounced shoulder hump, and their shoulders are lower than their rump when standing on all fours. Brown bears, on the other hand, have a clear shoulder hump that is higher than their rump.
Black bears also have straighter faces than brown bears when viewed from the side, and have taller, more oval-shaped ears, according to the NPS. Their front claws are less than 2 inches (5 centimeters) long and are shorter than brown bear claws, which are 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) long. Black bear claws are also more curved than brown bear claws and appear in bear tracks less often. Toe prints are more separated and arced in black bear tracks than brown bear tracks, and claw marks are closer to the foot pad (when they are visible).
Black bears range from northern Mexico, through the U.S., to northern Canada. They are found in 32 U.S. states and every province in Canada except Prince Edward Island, according to the IBA. Black bears are usually found in coniferous and deciduous forests, but their broad diet enables them to also use other types of habitat, including open alpine areas, according to The National Wildlife Federation.
Brown bears live in the western region of the black bears’ range, including western Canada and U.S. states such as Alaska, Washington and Idaho. Black bears also live so far north that their range overlaps with polar bears along the northern coastlines of Canada, such as in Ontario and Québec, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Bears don’t normally harm humans and often avoid encounters with people. However, bears occasionally attack to defend their cubs or food, and on extremely rare occasions kill humans to eat them. Seventy-eight people have been killed by black bears in the U.S. and Canada since 1900, compared to 84 killed by brown bears, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management found that most fatal black bear attacks are caused by predatory male black bears. Predatory attacks occur when a bear attacks a human they see as prey.
The NPS recommends that people keep their distance from wild bears and avoid surprising them. If attacked by a black bear, a victim should fight back. Playing dead doesn’t fool black bears (although it might work with brown bears), so if a victim is unable to escape to a car or another secure location, they should use whatever objects are available and strike the bear in its face and muzzle.
Black bears are omnivores and eat both plants and animals, with a wide diet that varies depending on their location and the time of year. Most of their diet is made up of insects, nuts, berries, grasses and other vegetation, according to the IBA.
Black bears are not active predators and only hunt when an opportunity for prey presents itself. Most of the vertebrates they eat are already dead, according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web (ADW). If they do decide to hunt, black bears will go after young, hoofed mammals, such as elk, moose and other deer species, according to The National Wildlife Federation. Black bears in Canada and Alaska also feed on salmon.