Large mammal with a heavily built body, short powerful limbs, and a very short tail. Bears breed once a year, producing one to four cubs. In northern regions they hibernate, and the young are born in the winter den. They are found mainly in North America and northern Asia. Bears walk on the soles of the feet and have long, nonretractable claws. The bear family, Ursidae, is related to carnivores such as dogs and weasels, and all bears are capable of killing prey.
Species There are seven species of bear. The brown bearUrsus arctos formerly ranged across most of Europe, northern Asia, and North America, but is now reduced in number. It varies in size from under 2 m/7 ft long in parts of the Old World to 2.8 m/9 ft long and 780 kg/1,700 lb in Alaska. The grizzly bear is a North American variety of this species, and another subspecies, the Kodiak bear of Alaska, is the largest living land carnivore. The white-furred polar bearThalarctos maritimus is up to 2.5 m/8 ft long, has furry undersides to the feet, and feeds mainly on seals. Its skin is black to conserve 80–90% of the solar energy trapped and channelled down the hollow hairs of its fur. It is found in the north polar region. The North American black bearEuarctos americanus and the Asian black bearSelenarctos thibetanus are smaller, only about 1.6 m/5 ft long. The latter has a white V-mark on its chest. The spectacled bearTremarctos ornatus of the Andes is similarly sized, as is the sloth bearMelursus ursinus of India and Sri Lanka, which has a shaggy coat and uses its claws and protrusile lips to obtain termites, one of its preferred foods. The smallest bear is the Malaysian sun bearHelarctos malayanus, rarely more than 1.2 m/4 ft long, a good climber, whose favourite food is honey.
Threat of extinction Of the seven species of bear, five are reckoned to be endangered and all apart from the polar bear and the American black bear are in decline. In April 2001, there were estimated to be fewer than 1,000 grizzly bears in the wild. The population of brown bears in the Pyrenees was estimated at eight in 1994. Despite the intoduction of two female bears in 1996, the bear population in the Pyrenees had declined to six by 1998.
The brown bear is thought to have become extinct in Britain around AD 900. Its elimination was caused by loss of habitat (it requires a very large area of undisturbed woodland), but was also related to its highly territorial habit; brown bears return repeatedly to fruits and berries within their home territory, making them an easy prey for hunters.
In 1992, American black bears were upgraded to Appendix 2 of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to stem the illegal trade in their gall bladders, which are used in Asian traditional medicine to treat liver disease. The gall bladders contain an active substance, ursodiol, which is tapped through surgically-implanted tubes. Although an inexpensive synthetic version of ursodiol is available, in 1995 there were at least 10,000 bears being kept in farms in China for their gall bladders, for which many people still prefer to pay thousands of dollars.
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