I’ve always loved Grizzly Bears and bears in general, and that’s probably due to a combination of growing up with one (or ten) too many stuffed animals and because some of my earliest childhood memories are of the Country Bear Jamboree in Walt Disney World, if you know, you know.
Bears are some of the most powerful animals on the planet, and although they can seriously harm humans and, on occasion, even kill them, you can’t deny that there is just something about them that makes you want to give the grizzly a great big cuddle.
In saying that, please don’t ever try to cuddle a grizzly bear; it may be the last thing you ever do.
Today, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about the grizzly bear, from its characteristics and evolution to its diet and hibernation patterns.
So, if you’re also a bear lover, BEAR with me as you’ll grow a newfound appreciation for the grizzly, and you’ll understand how these giant animals have made their way to the top of the food chain.
What Is The Grizzly Bear?
The grizzly bear is another name we give to the North American brown bear, which, you guessed it, inhabits North America.
Grizzlies are a subspecies of the typically brown bear, and did you know that there are actually 18 different brown bear species? Well, there were actually 21 brown bear subspecies once upon a time, but three are sadly extinct.
Of the 21 other brown bear species, the Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi), the Peninsular grizzly, the Kamchatka bear, and the now-extinct California grizzly, the Ungava-Labrador grizzly, and the Mexican grizzly are also sometimes called grizzly bears.
Grizzly bears are large omnivorous terrestrial mammals who are excellent swimmers, climbers, and runners, as they can surprisingly run as fast as 30 miles per hour. I think it’s safe to say that if a grizzly had a bone to pick with you, you wouldn’t have anywhere to hide
Classification Of Grizzly Bear
The grizzly bear is a subspecies of brown bear, but it definitely takes the title of being the most well-known.
Meaning Of “Grizzly”
Although the grizzly looks cute and cuddly, it had to get its fearsome name from somewhere. When Lewis and Clark first spotted a grizzly bear over 200 years ago in 1804, they described it as grisley, which could have meant one of two things, grey-tipped hair or fear-inspiring.
Grizzlies do have grey-tipped hair and a fearsome character, but they got their scientific name of Ursus arctos horribilis from George Ord in 1815, with horribilis referring to their personality.
Evolution, Genetics, and Life History
The grizzly bear and the coastal brown bear are closely related and are two different forms of Ursus arctos, as they live in different areas, with the coastal brown bear living on the coast and the grizzly living inland. Aside from their habitats, their appearance and diet also make the grizzly, and coastal brown bears different.
Grizzlies have grey-tipped fur that runs down their back and shoulders, and they prefer to forage for plants and fish for trout, whereas coastal brown bears eat a salmon-rich diet which then helps them grow much larger than the grizzly.
Although grizzlies and coastal brown bears are different, their mitochondrial DNA lineages are extremely similar, so it’s very difficult to tell the two species apart.
Brown bears originally came from Eurasia into North America around 50,000 years ago when the Bering land bridge connected the two. Still, it wasn’t until roughly 13,000 years ago, however, that the bears began spreading into the United States.
We now know the grizzly bear to be a subspecies under the brown bear species, but in the 19th century, scientists classified the grizzly into 86 distinct species.
It wasn’t until further testing the scientists discovered that despite the bears living in different areas, being different sizes, and having different coat colors, the 86 species they once thought were different, were actually one.
Grizzly Bears In the United States
Experts believe that there are seven brown bear subspecies that are alive today, but many people will disagree, believing that there are only two subspecies of brown bears, the grizzly and the Kodiak, throughout North America, with all other brown bears falling under the grizzly subspecies.
Regardless of whether you believe there are seven subspecies of the brown bear or only two, grizzlies range from Alaska all the way down to Colorado and vary in size and color depending on where they live.
Characteristics Of Grizzly Bear
Telling bears apart can be difficult, especially if you do believe that there are seven separate subspecies of brown bears because, well, they’re all brown.
But telling grizzlies apart from other bear species, like the polar bear, sun bear, and American black bear, is a far easier task, as they all have different colored coats, along with specific characteristics.
Some common characteristics of the grizzly bear are as follows:
- An adult grizzly bear has a muscular hump on its shoulders.
- A grizzly bear’s bum is lower than its shoulders.
- Grizzly bears have long front claws between 5.1 and 10.2 cm. You wouldn’t want to get struck by one of them now, would you?
- A grizzly bear has a “dished-in” face meaning its face curves inwards.
What Does A Grizzly Bear Look Like?
A grizzly bear can have anywhere from light to dark brown shaggy fur, which is thick and silver-grey tipped. Along their shoulders, these hoofed animals have a muscular hump that helps them dig and forage, and they have what people call a dished-in face with small rounded ears and a large snout to sniff out food.
How Big Do Grizzly Bears Get?
When I say you don’t want to get up close to a grizzly, I truly mean it, as male grizzly bears can reach up to 5 feet tall at the shoulder when standing on all fours. And if you thought that was big, if a male grizzly were to stand on its back two feet, it can reach up to 8 feet tall and tower over the average human.
If the size of the grizzly bear didn’t already shock you, then what if I told you a male grizzly could weigh up to 360 kilograms, with female grizzly bears weighing almost half that amount at 180 kilograms?
I only weigh 55 kilograms, so it truly puts these animals’ sizes into perspective when they weigh over 6 times the amount I do.
Grizzly Bear Colors
As I already mentioned, grizzly bears don’t just come in one particular color. Some bears have lighter coats that are almost blonde in color, whereas other bears can be dark brown, making them look similar to black bears.
Regardless of their coloring, grizzly bears will always look like they’ve just been to the salon for a balayage, as their tips are naturally silvery-grey. In all honesty, I must say I’m jealous, as I spend far too much money getting my hair highlighted.
Range, Geography, and Location of Grizzly Bears
Long ago, grizzly bears would have lived from Alaska down to Mexico, but today, their range is shorter, with the bears inhabiting areas from Alaska into the northwestern United States and as far south as Yellowstone.
If you live in any of the following areas, then you may spot a grizzly or two from time to time:
- Southern Colorado
- Western Canada
Of the 60,000 North American subspecies, many of them live in Alaska, as roughly 30,000 grizzlies live along Alaska’s coast, where there are high populations of salmon for them to feed on. Can you blame them?
Over east, up to 29,000 grizzlies call northern Canada home, with 15,000 of them still having a 90% historical range in British Columbia.
And for the remaining individuals, 1,000 bears roam the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a further 1,000 bears choose to live in the Northern Continental Divide in northwestern Montana, roughly 100 bears settled in northern, eastern, and central Idaho, and just 20 bears remain in northern Washington.
Biology Of Grizzly Bears
Grizzly bears are fascinating animals, and by looking at their biology, we can better understand grizzlies and their unique behaviors.
Another reason why I’m jealous of the grizzly bear is that, for five to seven months of the year, they will hibernate and essentially sleep through the winter, waking up when the temperatures start to rise.
Could you imagine just sleeping through winter and not having to de-ice your car, throw on loads of layers, or suffer from a runny nose? It sounds blissful.
But although the grizzly does get to take a very long nap, preparing for it takes some work. Before any hibernating can occur, the grizzly first needs to prepare a winter den and put on a lot of weight, and by a lot, I mean 180 kilograms.
Females will stay in hibernation longer than adult males, and during their time in the den, they will give birth to baby grizzlies who will drink their mother’s milk and build up their strength to last them through the hibernation period.
However, in some areas where there is food in abundance, grizzlies may come out of hibernation early or even skip it altogether.
And strangely enough, did you know that grizzlies don’t use the toilet during hibernation? Gross fact is incoming, but before hibernating, the grizzly will block its colon with feces, intestinal cells, and hair, preventing the grizzly from messing up its den.
Reproduction and Lifecycle
Grizzlies are solitary animals, aside from along the coasts, where groups of grizzlies come together around lakes, ponds, and rivers to catch and chow down on salmon.
Bears reach sexual maturity at the age of 5. During the mating season, females will mate with males; however, they will delay the embryo from implanting until they go into hibernation.
The delay in the embryo being implanted is one of the reasons why grizzly bears have a low reproductive rate; if a female bear doesn’t eat enough nutrients and calories, there is a high chance of miscarriage.
If the pregnancy goes well, after 180 to 250 days, female grizzlies will give birth to one to four cubs and will care for them for up to two years.
If you’ve ever heard the saying, “Don’t mess with a mama bear,” it’s because grizzlies are extremely protective of their young and will attack predators and male bears bigger than themselves in order to protect their babies.
Once the newborn bears leave their mums after that initial two-year period, mother and cub may cross paths, but they will typically avoid one another.
In the wild, grizzly bears can live between 20 to 25 years, but females, because they aren’t as reckless and don’t engage in breeding fights (sounds familiar), typically live longer at 26 years old. In captivity, some grizzlies have lived to ages over 40 years, and the oldest wild grizzly reached the age of 34.
Movement and Behavior
Grizzly bears may be large animals, but their size doesn’t stop them from running, climbing, and swimming.
In Yellowstone National Park, a grizzly bear ran at 30 miles per hour, and now if I tell you that a grizzly would chase you up a tree or even follow you into a river, you can begin to see why these bears are top of the food chain predators.
Ecology of Grizzly Bears
Grizzly bears are a keystone species that help keep their prey numbers at a reasonable rate and replenish the forests with seeds and berries that they’ve digested and pooped out.
Diet – What Do Grizzly Bears Like to Eat?
Grizzly bears are omnivores meaning they eat both plants and other animals. If a grizzly is feeling up for a hunt, it will tackle down moose, elk, bison, and even black bears or fish out salmon, trout, or bass from a river or lake.
In times when a grizzly is feeling a little bit lazy, they take the easy route and forage for nuts, grass, insects, and small rodents, occasionally even nabbing a scavenged carcass from another predator.
Grizzlies are essentially the bullies of their habitats as they will often steal other predators’ kills, with the other species simply letting them, to avoid any fights or conflict.
Although bears are at the top of the food chain, they do have a few rivals who don’t like to put up with their bullying behavior. The Gray wolf, in particular, will fight back when a grizzly tries to steal its carcass, often teaming up with other wolves to distract the bear or nip at its legs.
Cougars will also sometimes try to stop a grizzly from stealing their kills and will use their claws to try and scare the bear off; however, bears will usually kill cougars in the process.
Being a keystone species, the grizzly bear keeps the ecosystem intact by feeding on seeds and berries and distributing them throughout their habitats in their feces, and by digging up roots, they churn the soil, bring up nitrogen, and disperse plant species.
Regulating prey populations is another way grizzlies help out in their habitat. They not only stop one particular species from overtaking the area, but they also stop the species from overgrazing the plant life.
And of course, I can’t forget that when bears eat, whether it be an animal on land or a fish from the water, they leave behind a carcass which then provides food for smaller predators. They really are active in their community.
Interaction with Humans
For centuries people have feared grizzly bears, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t had people’s utmost respect.
Relationship with Native Americans
Native American tribes have lived in bear territories for thousands of years, with some tribes trying to avoid grizzlies completely and others who set out to hunt them to gain respect from their peers. Some smart tribes even outsourced the hunting to European colonists as they knew just how dangerous grizzlies could be.
Conflicts with Humans
I’ve never come close to a grizzly bear; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even seen one in captivity, but I know just how aggressive they can be. Grizzlies will stand their ground in conflict, and females who are protecting their cubs are most likely to attack humans.
If you don’t want to be attacked by a grizzly bear, don’t surprise it, and if you can see it is close to food or if it’s a mother with young cubs, stay well away. Grizzly attacks on humans are rare, but they do happen, so be cautious.
Alaska is home to some of the best bear-watching on the planet, and during times when especially salmon is in the waterways, you can see bears in the dozens.
Threat to Survival
Habitat loss, lack of food, and hunting are all issues that have caused the grizzly bear population to decline.
Grizzly bears are a threatened species under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and efforts have been put in place to replenish grizzly bear populations throughout North America.
Grizzlies in Yellowstone National Parks have been on and off protected by the Endangered Species Act for years. Even though Yellowstone grizzlies’ numbers have risen from 136 to over 700, the bears are now back under federal protection to help the grizzly bear population continue to rise.
The good news is that although grizzly numbers have declined over the years, grizzly bear conservation efforts are in place to help bring their numbers back up.
Protected areas for the grizzlies, no hunting policies, migration corridors, recovery zones, and education programs designed to teach humans about the bears, their habitats, and how to avoid contact with grizzlies should hopefully see numbers replenish in the near and distant future.
How Can You Help?
So, after all this, you’re probably wondering how you can help to restore grizzly bears all over North America, and well, there are a couple of things you can do:
- Educate yourself and others on grizzly bears and how to avoid them.
- Support conservation efforts and donate to grizzly bear charities.
Facts about Grizzly Bears
Here are some interesting grizzly bears facts.
- Grizzly bears prey on other animals as well as nuts, grass, and seeds.
- A grizzly bear will snack on 14 kilograms of food per day.
- Grizzly cubs can nurse for up to three years.
- The oldest bear in Yellowstone was 34 years old.
- The grizzly bear is Monatana’s state animal.
Although I may never see a grizzly bear in my lifetime, I think they’re truly fascinating animals that deserve recognition and respect. To leave this article on a fun and positive note, here is one of my favorite jokes about grizzly bears:
A grizzly walks to the checkout line with salmon and honey, to which the clerk says, “Gotcha. Just the bear necessities.”