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Anatomy of the Black Bear

How does a black bear skull differ from the skull of another animal?
Black bear skulls are typically massive; much bigger than those of most North American wildlife. It is quite long and wide across the forehead, but narrower in the muzzle area. The eyebrow ridge is well-defined and the nostrils are quite broad. The jawbone hinge is large to accommodate the heavy jaw muscles. A female skull may be narrower and more pointed than that of a mature male. An average measurement is 11.5 inches in length and 6.5 to 7 inches in width. The longest black bear skull recorded with the Boone and Crockett system was 14.75 inches and the widest black bear skull was 8.875 inches.        


                                                              Skull illustrations from Skulls and Bones by Glenn Searfoss

Why aren't bears good hunters, when they are considered predators?
Black bears are not efficient predators, primarily because their skeletons are designed for strength rather than speed. They have thick limbs, massive shoulders, and a short back. None of these attributes is expressly designed to increase speed. Instead, they provide the black bear with strength and power. In addition, the muscles are thick the entire length of the leg, rather than tapered towards the foot, like a cat's. A thicker muscle close to the hip and shoulder improves speed, while a thick muscle mass stretching the entire length of the leg is equivalent to trying to run with weights on your feet! Longer metapodials, or foot bones, also increase stride length and improve speed. Black bears have relatively short metapodials.

 Muscles illustration from
National Bowhunters Educ. Foundation

Skeleton illustration from
National Bowhunters Educ. Foundation


Why are bears being poached for their gall bladders?
Unfortunately for bears, they are the only species with a gall bladder that produces fairly large quantities of bile, or bile salts, an ingredient that has been used in traditional Asian medicines for as long as 3,000 years. It is reported to cure a number of ailments, including cirrhosis of the liver, high blood pressure, jaundice, diabetes, heart disease, fever, headache, hemorrhoids, severe burns, and tooth decay. It also is used in health care products such as shampoo, and as a food delicacy. While synthetic forms of UDCA (the active ingredient in bile that has been proven to have some medicinal qualities) are available, there is a tradition that indicates the cure must come from nature to be effective. Prices for bear gall bladders are astronomically high in some countries — in Japan, gall bladders can sell for $1500 to $4000 each. A bear gall bladder is approximately the size of a human thumb, and is virtually indistinguishable from the gall bladder of a cow or a pig in its dried, "fig-like" state. Fakes have flooded the market, leading some people to go to extraordinary lengths to obtain authentic gall bladders. This has led to an increase in poaching across North America and Russia. Having the bear killed before your eyes ensures that the gall bladder is the real thing. 


Organs illustration from National Bowhunters Educ. Foundation





Why don't bears have tails?
Bears did have large tails, several million years ago! Since that time, the tail has been reduced to a small, furry flap of skin measuring only about 4.8 inches in length. There are many folktales, stories, and legends that attempt to explain why the bear lost its tail. The scientific theory is far less exciting. It is believed that the bear lost its tail through the process of evolution, because it really did not need it. While dogs and other animals use their tails as a means of communication, bears tend to "face things" head on. Their display behavior often involves facing forward, either on two feet or four, leaving the tail practically invisible, and thus useless.

Evolution & Taxonomy

Habitat & Home Range

Population and Distribution