American Black Bears

American black bears known by their scientific name Ursus Americanus is the smallest living species of bears found on the continent of North America.

American black bear eating grass in a grassy field.

There are several subspecies or types of black bears in North America. However, they all share some common traits. Here is everything you need to know about the American black bears plus some interesting facts.

Habitat

Black bears inhabit areas from Nothern Alaska all the way to the east coast. Their population is then a bit dispersed throughout the southern states. For what it’s worth, these bears inhabit nearly 40 states and can be found as far south as Mexico.

Because the American black bear is able to adapt to its environment, they tend to stray away from the usual habitat in search of food. However, most prefer to remain in forested areas. For example, in the east, they are found in forests and swampy terrain. On the other hand, they are found in forests and wooded mountain terrain in the west.

Kermode bear sitting on rocks between wet grass.
Kermode Bear

Description

Black bears across North America share common characteristics. Most black bears are black with a light brown muzzle and can sometimes have a white V-shaped patch of fur on their chest.

However, many black bear subspecies can be of a variety of colors. Examples include the cinnamon bear which is a reddish-brown, the Kermode bear which is creamy white, and the glacier bear which is a gray-blue color.

Color variations of American black bears by location
LocationColor breakdown
Michigan100% black
Minnesota94% black, 6% brown
New England100% black
New York100% black
Tennessee100% black
Washington (coastal)99% black, 1% brown or blonde
Washington (inland)21% black, 79% brown or blonde
Yosemite National Park9% black, 91% brown or blonde
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These kinds of bears have small eyes and their ears are rounded and upright. Their claws which are shorter, sharper and more curved than other bears are great for digging and climbing trees.

Female glacier bear and her cubs.
Glacier bears.

From the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, the average adult American black bear is between 4 feet to 6.7 feet tall. They can weigh anywhere between 125 to 600 pounds. Males (boars) of the species are 30 to 40 percent larger than the females (sows) and the overall size and weight depend on the availability of food.

Diet

As typical with other bears, the American black bear is an omnivore. They can eat both plants and animals. And, despite what some might think, their diets are made up of mostly nuts, roots, fruits, and insects. However, these bears are still able to kill other animals as big as elks. Generally, though, they prefer to catch fish, small rodents, and may feed on carrion.

Reproduction

Female black bears are able to reproduce between the ages of 3 to 5 years and onwards. Male black bears are typically able to reproduce from 4 to 6 years of age. The mating period usually occurs in the June–July period, however, it can extend to August in the species of the northern range. 

Once fertilized, the eggs undergo delayed development and do not implant in the female’s womb until November. The gestation period lasts 235 days and litters are usually born in late January to early February. Litter size is between one and six cubs, typically two or three.

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When born, the cubs usually weigh between 8 and 12 ounces. They are blind, hairless, and can’t walk until they are 4 or 5 weeks old. At 6 months, they weigh from 55 to 65 pounds.

The mother and cubs remain together for 16-17 months until May or June of the following year. Then, the family members separate, the mother mates again, and the 2-year cycle repeats.

A Louisiana black bear.
Lousiana Black Bear

Status

There an estimated 914,000 black bears in North America with over 450,000 in the United States. They do not have many natural predators except for human intervention.

Over 90% of black bear deaths are the result of hunting, trapping, motor vehicle accidents, or other interactions with humans. The average life expectancy in the wild is 15 to 20 years.

Fun Facts About American Black Bears

  • Black bears are extremely adaptable and show a great variation in habitat types and food.
  • This species also occurs over a range of altitudes, from sea-level to elevations of up to 3,500 meters.
  • The average lifespan in the wild is about 20 years. The record age of a wild specimen was 39 years, while that in captivity was 44 years.
  • Adults typically range from 120 to 200 centimeters (47 to 79 inches) in head-and-body length, and 70 to 105 centimeters (28 to 41 inches) in shoulder height.
  • The typically small tail is from 8 to 18 centimeters (3.0 to 7.0 inches) long.
  • The largest wild American black bear ever recorded was a male from New Brunswick. It weighed 409 kg (902 lb) after it had been dressed, meaning it weighed an estimated 500 kg (1,100 lb) in life, and measured 2.41 m (7.9 ft) long.
  • Despite their name, black bears show a great deal of color variation. Individual coat colors can range from white, blond, cinnamon, or light brown to dark chocolate brown or to jet black.
  • Approximately 70% of all black bears are black.
  • An American black bear’s coat has layers of shaggy fur. These layers keep it warm in cold winter months.
  • They run at speeds of 40–50 km/h (25–30 mph). However, they cannot sustain this pace for long.
  • Black bears have relatively short claws that enable them to climb trees. The claws are non-retractable.
  • During winter, black bears spend the season dormant in their dens.
  • They make their dens in hollow trees or logs, under the root mass of a tree, in rock crevices, or caves.
  • Hibernation in black bears typically lasts 3–8 months, depending on the regional climate.
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