“When a pine needle falls in the forest, the eagle sees it; the deer hears it, and the bear smells it.” – American Indian proverb
There are eight different species of bear: black, brown, Asiatic black, giant panda, polar, sun, sloth and spectacled. They all share a common ancestor, known as the dawn bear, which lived 20 million years ago and was the size of a toy poodle.
Defining which species are true bears can be problematic: sloth bears were first thought to be giant sloths, and pandas wavered between being classified as bears and raccoons. Koalas were named Phascolarctos – literally “pocket bear” – by Europeans but are actually marsupials. Their closest relation is the wombat.
The names of bears can be misleading – black bears can be white, brown or black, while brown bears range from a creamy colour to a near-black. Some names are more helpful: the Asiatic black bear’s scientific name Selenarctos thibetanus – literally means “moon bear of Tibet” after the crescent-shaped markings on their chests. The sun bear is the smallest of the bears: his Malay name, basindo nan tenggil, translates as “he who likes to sit high” after the bear’s fondness for perching in trees. The surname McMahon means “son of bear” while the Swedish name Björn means bear. Male and female bears are known as boars and sows, though the bear family’s closest relatives are dogs.
Spectacled bears are so called after the distinctive markings around their eyes. They are the only bears to be found in South America. Following this logic, Paddington, the bear from darkest Peru would have been a spectacled bear. Originally, he was a stowaway from darkest Africa until it was pointed out that there are no bears in Africa.
The brown bear’s scientific name, Ursus arctos, means “bear bear”. Ursus is Latin, arctos Greek. Grizzlies are a subspecies of brown bear found in North America – their name refers to the sprinkles of grey found running through their fur. Theodore Roosevelt was a keen hunter and took “grizzly” to refer to the bear’s character rather than its grizzled fur. The name “teddy bear” was inspired by a political cartoon in the Washington Post in 1902, depicting Roosevelt walking away from a captured black bear during a hunt.
In 2006, a bear shot in Canada turned out to be the offspring of a grizzly and a polar bear. This was the first recorded “pizzly” in the wild, though a few exist in zoos around the world as a result of the bears sharing an enclosure. A more elegant Inuit alternative to pizzly or “grolar” is nanulak, combining nanuk, polar bear, with aklak, grizzly.
Polar bears, species Ursus maritimus – literally “sea bear” – are marine mammals, with water-repellent fur and feet adapted for swimming.
They only live in the Arctic – the word “Arctic” comes from the Greek for “bear” while “Antarctic” means the opposite, “without bear”, although the bear in question is actually the Great Bear, Ursa Major, a constellation only visible from the Northern hemisphere.
Only one polar bear skull has been found in Britain – at Inchnadamph caves in Sutherland in 1927 – but in the “Little Ice Age” of the 17th century, Arctic ice stretched far enough for them to reach Orkney.
All polar bears are born between late December and early January – making them Capricorns.
The Western world didn’t know that the giant panda (species Ailuropoda melanoleuca, “black and white catfoot”) existed until 1869 when a missionary was invited around for tea by a Chinese landowner and saw a panda’s pelt. It was nearly 50 years later that a Westerner first saw a live panda – a German zoologist came across one in 1916.
All the world’s pandas officially belong to China, although some are lent to zoos around the world. Edinburgh Zoo currently has two pandas, which means Scotland has twice as many pandas as Tory MPs.
Bears spend much of their days eating, laying down fat reserves to get through their seven-month sleep, or “torpor”. During this time their body temperature, respiration and metabolic rate hardly alter and they don’t eat, drink, urinate or defecate but recycle their urea into protein; they also plug their anuses with a mixture of faeces, hair and bedding material called a “tappet”. Female bears even give birth in their sleep.