Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)
The brown bear occupies a uniquely contradictory place in human culture. The familiar teddy bear provides reassurance and comfort to millions of children all over the world, yet television documentaries portray graphic reconstructions of bear attacks on campers and hikers.
Whilst never hated or persecuted to the same extent as wolves, human expansion and clearance of the great forests of Europe has significantly reduced bear populations and range, and today only a few remain in western Europe, and fragmentation and loss of habitat continues to threaten bears in their remaining strongholds in the Carpathian Mountains and the forests of north-eastern Europe.
What is a bear?
The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is the largest land carnivore in Europe. An adult male weighs between 140-350kg and stands 95-130 cm tall at the shoulder, with a body length of 1.7-2.2m from nose to tail, standing. Females are usually smaller, around 100-200 kg, with a body length of 1.6-2m, standing 90-110 cm at the shoulder. The brown bear is heavily built with a short face, small rounded ears and a prominent shoulder hump. It has large feet with conspicuous curved claws. The colour of its coat varies from fawn to dark brown. The European brown bear is the same species as the grizzly bear of North America.
Where are bears found?
Brown bears originally ranged throughout Europe, but now occur mainly in the Carpathian Mountains (Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland and Romania), northeastern Europe (Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Baltic states) and the former Yugoslavia (Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia, Yugoslav Federation and Albania) with small, populations in Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Austria and Greece. There are around 17,000 - 18,000 brown bears in Europe. For up to date population statistics and a map, visit the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe's bear page here.
Population augmentations to prevent local extinctions of fragmented populations have been carried out in the Austrian Alps, north-eastern Italy and the Pyrenees, using bears translocated from Slovenia.
Where do bears live?
The brown bear formerly occupied a range of habitats from steppe and tundra to mountains and forests. Now it is restricted to forested areas, usually in mountainous regions with low human population density.
What do bears eat?
Although classified as a carnivore, the brown bear has an omnivorous diet, consisting mainly of berries, grasses, roots, nuts, herbs and insects, supplemented with carrion and small mammals. Bears will also hunt young elk and deer, and some bears raid garbage bins, beehives and crops.
Bears have a high food requirement in autumn, eating large quantities of berries, beech mast and other seasonally available foods in order to store enough fat to survive the winter in hibernation.
How do bears live?
Brown bears can live for over thirty years in the wild, and are slow developers, staying with their mother until they are between 1½ - 2½ years old; they do not reach sexual maturity until around 4-5 years old. Bears occupy a home range, which may overlap with other ranges; a male bear’s territory, which can be from 128 - 1,600 km2, may encompass the ranges of several females, which average around 58 - 225 square kilometres. Young males may disperse large distances, wandering in an area of up to 12,000 square kilometres, whereas females usually establish home ranges adjacent to their mother. Although largely solitary, bears will gather in groups at food sources.
Brown bears hibernate in winter, for between three and seven months depending on the severity of winter (bears in Slovakia typically hibernate between November-March), in a specially dug den, or natural sites under rocks or tree roots. During hibernation, the bear’s body temperature drops, and heart rate slows to about a fifth of the normal rate. Bodily functions slow and they do not eat or drink, living purely on accumulated body fat. Hibernation is thought to be an adaptation to lack of food during the winter months, and may also facilitate birth of cubs. Some bears, particularly in warmer areas such as Spain, may remain active all year round.
Mating takes place in May-July, and implantation of embryos is delayed until November, after which gestation is around 6-8 weeks and between one and four cubs, weighing around 500g each, are born in the mother’s hibernation den in January-February. By the time the mother bear emerges from hibernation, the young cubs are ready to leave the den. Female bears do not bear young every year, but typically every 2-3 years, and infant mortality is high in cubs under one year old, which makes populations vulnerable to over-exploitation.