1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bear

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BEAR, properly the name of the European brown bear (Ursus arctus), but extended to include all the members of the Ursidae, the typical family of Arctoid carnivora, distinguished by their massive bodies, short limbs, and almost rudimentary tails. With the single exception of the Indian sloth-bear, all the species have forty-two teeth, of which the incisors and canines closely resemble those of purely carnivorous mammals; while the molars, and especially the one known as the “sectorial” or “carnassial,” have their surfaces tuberculated so as to adapt them for grinding vegetable substances. As might have been supposed from their dentition, the bears are omnivorous; but most prefer vegetable food, including honey, when a sufficient supply of this can be had. The grizzly bear, however, is chiefly carnivorous; while the polar bear is almost wholly so.

Bears are five-toed, and provided with formidable claws, which are not retractile, and thus better fitted for digging and climbing than for tearing. Most climb trees in a slow, lumbering fashion, and, in descending, always come hind-quarters first. The grizzly bear is said to lose this power of climbing in the adult stage. In northern countries bears retire during the winter into caves and the hollows of trees, or allow the falling snow to cover them, and there remain dormant till the advent of spring, about which time the female usually produces her young. These are born naked and blind, and it is commonly five weeks before they see, or become covered with hair. Before hibernating the adults grow very fat, and it is by the gradual consumption of this fat—known in commerce as bear’s grease—that such vital action as is necessary to the continuance of life is sustained.

The bear family is widely distributed, being found in every quarter of the globe except Australia, and in all climates, from the highest northern latitudes yet reached by man to the warm regions of India and Malaya. In the north-west corner of Africa the single representative of the family found on that continent occurs.

The polar or white bear (Ursus maritimus), common to the Arctic regions of both hemispheres, is distinguished from the other species by having the soles of the feet covered with close-set hairs,—in adaptation to the wants of the creature, the bear being thereby enabled to walk securely on slippery ice. In the whiteness of its fur also, it shows such an assimilation in colour to that of surrounding nature as must be of considerable service in concealing it from its prey. The food of the white bear consists chiefly of seals and fish, in pursuit of which it shows great power of swimming and diving, and a considerable degree of sagacity; but its food also includes the carcases of whales, birds and their eggs, and grass and berries when these can be had. That it can sustain life on a purely vegetable diet is proved by instances on record of its being fed for years on bread only, in confinement. These bears are strong swimmers, Sir Edward Sabine having found one “swimming powerfully 40 m. from the nearest shore, and with no ice in sight to afford it rest.” They are often carried on floating ice to great distances, and to more southern latitudes than their own, no fewer than twelve Polar bears having been known to reach Iceland in this way during one winter. The female always hibernates, but the male may be seen abroad at all seasons. In bulk the white bear exceeds most other members of the family, measuring nearly 9 ft. in length, and often weighing 1600 ℔.

Land bears have the soles of the feet destitute of hair, and their fur more or less shaggy. On these the brown bear (Ursus arctus,—ἄρκτος of Aristotle) is found in one or other of its varieties all over the temperate and north temperate regions of the eastern hemisphere, from Spain to Japan. The fur is usually brownish, but there are black, blackish-grey and yellowish varieties. It is a solitary animal, frequenting the wooded parts of the regions it inhabits, and living on a mixed diet of fruits, vegetable, honey, fish and the smaller animals. In winter it hibernates, concealing itself in some hollow or cavern. It does not seek to attack man; but when baited, or in defence of its young, shows great courage and strength, rising on its hind legs and endeavouring to grasp its antagonist in an embrace. Bear-baiting, till within comparatively recent times, was a favourite sport throughout Europe, but, along with cock-fighting and badger-baiting, has gradually disappeared before a more humane civilization. It was a favourite pastime among the Romans, who imported their bears from Britain, a proof that the animal was then comparatively abundant in that country; indeed, from reference made to it in early Scottish history, the bear does not appear to have been extirpated in Britain before the end of the 11th century. It is now found in greatest abundance in Norway, Russia and Siberia, where hunting the bear is a favourite sport, and where, when dead, its remains are highly valued. Among the Kamchadales “the skin of the bear,” says a traveller, “forms their beds and their coverlets, bonnets for their heads, gloves for their hands and collars for their dogs. The flesh and fat are their dainties. Of the intestines they make masks or covers for their faces, to protect them from the glare of the sun in the spring, and use them as a substitute for glass, by extending them over their windows. Even the shoulder-blades are said to be put in requisition for cutting grass.” In confinement the brown bear is readily tamed; and advantage has been taken of the facility with which it can sustain itself on the hind feet to teach it to dance to the sound of music. It measures 4 ft. in length, and is about 21/2 ft. high. Of this species Crowther’s bear from the Atlas Mountains, the Syrian bear (Ursus arctus pyriacus) and the snow or isabelline bear (Ursus arctus isabellinus) of the Himalaya are local races, or at most subspecies.[1] American naturalists regard the big brown bears of Alaska as a distinct group. They range from Sitka to the extremity of the Alaskan Peninsula, over Kodiak Island, and inland. Their distinctive external features are their large size, light-brown colour, high shoulders, massive heads of great breadth and shaggy coat.

The grizzly bear (Ursus arctus horribilis, formerly known as U. ferox) is regarded by some naturalists as a distinct species and by others as a variety of the brown bear, to which it is closely allied. It was said to exceed all other American mammals in ferocity of disposition and muscular strength. Stories were told of its attacking the bison, and it has been reported to carry off the carcase of a wapiti, weighing nearly 1000 ℔, for a considerable distance to its den, there to devour it at leisure. It also eats fruit and vegetables. Its fur is usually of a yellowish-brown colour, coarse and grizzled, and of little value commercially, while its flesh, unlike that of other bears, is uneatable even by the Indians. The grizzly bear is now rare in the United States, save in the Yellowstone Park and the Clearwater Mountains of Idaho, though more common in British Columbia. Several geographical races are recognized. The Tibet bear (U. pruinosus) is a light-coloured small species.

The American black bear (Ursus americanus) occurs throughout the wooded parts of the North American continent, whence it is being gradually driven to make room for man. It is similar in size to the brown bear, but its fur is of a soft even texture, and of a shining black colour, to which it owes its commercial value. At the beginning of the 19th century black bears were killed in enormous numbers for their furs, which at that time were highly valued. In 1803 the skins imported into England numbered 25,000, but the imports have since decreased to one-half of that number. They are chiefly used for military accoutrements. This is a timid animal, feeding almost solely on fruits, and lying dormant during winter, at which period it is most frequently killed. It is an object of superstitious reverence to the Indians, who never kill it without apologizing and deploring the necessity which impels them to do so.

The Himalayan black bear (U. torquatus) is found in the forest regions ranging from the Persian frontier eastward to Assam. The average length is about 5 ft.; there is no under-fur, and the coat is smooth, black in colour, with the exception of a white horseshoe-mark on the chest. It feeds chiefly on fruit and roots, but kills sheep, goats, deer, ponies and cattle, and sometimes devours carrion.

The small bruang or Malayan bear (Ursus malayanus) is of a jet-black colour, with a white semilunar mark on the chest, and attains a length of 41/2 ft. Its food consists almost solely of vegetables and honey, but the latter is its favourite food,—the extreme length and pliability of the tongue enabling it to scoop out the honeycombs from the hollows of trees. It is found in the Malay Peninsula and Islands, and is readily tamed.

Not much larger than the Malay bear is the South American spectacled bear of the Andes (U. ornatus), distinguished from all the rest by the presence of a perforation in the lower end of the humerus, and hence sometimes separated as Tremarctus. It is black, with tawny rings round the eyes, and white cheeks, throat and chest. A second race or species exists.

The sloth-bear (Melursus labiatus or ursinus) is distinguished by the absence of one pair of upper incisors, the small size of the cheek-teeth and the very extensile character of the lips. It is also known as the aswail and the honey-bear, the last name being also given to the Malay bear and the kinkajou. It is about the size of the brown bear, is covered with long, black hair, and of extremely uncouth aspect. It inhabits the mountainous regions of India, is readily tamed and is the bear usually exhibited by the Hindu jugglers. The food consists of fruits, honey and white ants.

Fossil remains of extinct bears first occur in strata of the Pliocene age. Those of the great cave bear (Ursus spelaeus), found abundantly in certain caverns of central Europe and Asia, show that it must have exceeded in size the polar bear of the present day. Its remains are also found in similar situations in Britain associated with those of an allied species (Ursus priscus).

  1. Lydekker, in Proc. Zool. Soc., 1897, p. 412.