On specialized bear tours led by an expert company, you will have the opportunity to see these majestic and fascinating mammals up close. When in the field, you may hear your naturalist guide use some unfamiliar words to describe the animals you are seeing. Below you can learn some of the languages that are often used to describe bears.
Some basic descriptive terms
Any adult bear you see can be classified as either a boar or a sow. The first refers to men and the second to women. In all species, the wild boar is usually much larger than the female, and the largest differences in size occur between male and female polar bears. Juvenile bears are called cubs and are born in litters of one to three. They are born blind, bald and defenseless, so they depend on their mother for the first two years of their life. It can be rare to see a sow and her cubs on bear tours, as the mothers tend to be very protective.
Describing the bearskin
In zoological terms, an animal’s fur, hair, or wool is described as its fur. Fur can vary greatly between bear species. Brown bears, for example, have much thicker and hairier fur than that of the black bear. The coat of many bears will consist of dense fur covered with longer and thicker guard hairs. The protective hairs help the bear shed water and snow, while the thick fur acts primarily as an insulator.
You may see different coat colors or phases on the same bear species. For example, the American black bear can be black, brown, tan, blond and even white, in the case of the Kermode or “spirit bear”.
Bears molt or molt annually, typically during early summer. As the weather gets warmer, winter coats are shed for a shorter, cooler summer coat. Wildlife enthusiasts on bear tours in the spring or early summer may spot a bear in mid-molt, distinguished by a patchy and somewhat disheveled coat.
Describing Bear Claws and Paws
The bear’s paws and claws are its most valuable tools, used for digging, climbing, swimming, and catching prey. Although the shapes and sizes of the legs differ from species to species, they all have plantigrade legs. Animals exhibiting plantigrade locomotion walk with the toes and central bones of the foot (called metatarsals) flat on the ground. Humans walk this way too. In contrast, dogs and cats exhibit digitigrade locomotion (walking on the toes), while deer and other hoofed animals walk non-reguligrade.
The soles of the legs are bare and leathery to provide good traction. In polar bears, the surface of the feet is covered with small bumps, called papillae, that prevent them from skating on the ice. Bears tend to lose a lot of body heat through their paws, which is why the polar bear has adapted with slightly hairier toes and paws than its cousins.
Bear claws differ in sharpness and length from species to species. The black bear has very sharp and very dexterous legs that help it climb trees, while the brown bear has blunt, larger, and more curved legs for digging. The polar bear has very wide legs, which help it distribute its weight while walking on snow, much like a snowshoe.
Bear tours are the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in the wonderful world of wildlife. Familiarizing yourself with the language of wildlife is an important step in understanding the animals you are observing. Along the way, you may become an expert in the field.