Bio Facts: Bear, North American Black
American Black Bear
Canada & Alaska east to Newfoundland, East Coast of the United States, Florida, lower California, Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas and northern Mexico. In Florida, black bears are localized in the following areas: Big Cypress Swamp, Ocala National Forest, and the Everglades.
Upland forests, marshes, swamps, and thickets in several plant successional stages that provide forage and cover.
Head and body measure on average about 63 inches long (5.25 feet); tail is short (4 inches); head is large with long tapering nose; nose pad broad; nostril openings large; eyes small and black; ears round and prominent; legs heavily constructed; feet large, broad, and flat; five digits on both front and hind feet; each toe is equipped with a short, curved, non-retractable claw; males (250 to 500 lbs.) approximately 50% larger than females (225 to 450 lbs.).
3 to 5 years
In the wild, black bears eat almost any succulent, nutritious vegetation (tubers, bulbs, berries, nuts, and young shoots), grubs, carrion, fish, young hoofed mammals or domestic stock. In the Zoo, they are fed omnivore pellets and assorted fruits & vegetables.
Florida (T), Iowa (E), Missouri (T), Montana (R), South Dakota (T).
Black bears prefer forested areas with a dense understory. Thick, “impenetrable” swamps are ideal. Access to a variety of habitats that provide an assortment of foods during different seasons of the year is important. Florida’s subtropical climate, long growing season, numerous swamps, and diverse vegetation types provide excellent conditions for this species.
Black bears were thought to be creatures of the night. However, recent studies indicate that they may be most active at twilight and during the day. This activity may alter depending on temperatures and weather. Usually, they are crepuscular (active at dawn & dusk) in spring and nocturnal in autumn. Bears may travel as much as 20 miles in search of food.
In the northern part of their range, black bears go into a dormant period during colder months. This, however, is not hibernation. While body temperature, metabolism, and heart rate decrease, they are easily disturbed. In Florida and other southern states, black bears do not enter a dormant period. Most bears find or dig an earthen den. Bears in southeastern states usually den in tree cavities.
Black bears preparing to den may devote 20 hours a day in autumn eating. They will consume approximately 20,000 calories/day, putting on a five-inch layer of fat. Denning may last 3 to 6 months depending upon latitude.
The Florida black bear dens in tree cavities, banks, logs, and caves, usually alone. It also makes a nest on the ground, particularly in palmetto thickets and tangles of gallberry, fetterbush, and sweet pepperbush.
The basic social unit is a mother with cubs, which stay together for up to 16 months. The adult female maintains a territory and allows her cubs free range. Overlapping female territories rarely occur. Adult males occupy larger territories that encompass two or more adult female territories. Territories usually range over 25 to 100 square miles. Males avoid one another. Young males are not tolerated because they compete for available resources that are needed for the family group. These lone males are left to wander over vast tracts of land in search of an undefended territory where they can establish themselves. When certain food items are concentrated in a particular area, such as at a berry patch or garbage dump, aggregations of black bears occur compatibly, and the social system adjusts accordingly.
Mothers guard their cubs for the first year or so, driving them off when they are about 18 months old.
When two bears meet, a vicious fight often erupts, resulting in wounds and abscesses that would kill most large mammals. Bears usually survive these “meetings.” A bear’s greatest fear is a forest fire, which may send it fleeing in panic.
Like other bears, black bears have good eyesight. They also have keen hearing, but it is their sense of smell that is most impressive. It is 15 times better than our sense of smell. They also have an excellent sense of touch with their lips, so sensitive that bears can take berries from a bush without tearing a leaf.
The usual black bear gait is a lumbering walk. However, they can run much faster than people can (at a gallop, they can reach speeds of up to 30 mph), though not as fast as grizzly bears. Black bears can climb trees to escape from grizzlies, which generally cannot climb.
The black bear has claws that are shorter and more curved than those of the grizzly bear. This allows it to have great agility in climbing trees. Often, a sow will encourage her cubs to tree themselves when there is danger nearby.
Bears will avoid humans, but can be very dangerous, especially when protecting cubs.
The male is called a boar and the female, a sow. Young bears are known as cubs.
Mother bear’s milk is 10 times as rich as cow’s milk. At birth, cubs weigh between four to seven pounds when they wander out of the den for the first time. However, by the age of two years they will weigh as much as 100 pounds.
In the Middle Ages, bear cubs were thought to be shapeless lumps at birth, no larger than mice, without fur, eyes, hair or limbs. The mother bear would lick this mass into shape, eventually forming a bear cub, thus the origin of the phrase, “licked into shape.”
The body parts of bears were often used in medicine. To prevent fits, it was once advised to take fur from a live bear’s belly, boil it in alcohol and put it on the soles of your feet.
“Bear grease,” a salve made form the fat of a bear, was said to cure baldness.
Many Native Americans believe that bears held supernatural powers. The Apache believed bears to be so powerful that it was taboo to touch a bear, dead or alive.
Native Americans who depended on the bear for food or used its fat for cooking killed bears with great ritual and ceremony, apologizing to the bear for the indignity.
Worship of the bear was based on its natural cycles: hibernation represented death and emergence in the spring represented rebirth. The bear cycle is similar to the cycle of death and resurrection that is an integral part of most religions.
Americans from the Ozarks region believed that “A bad winter is betide, if hair grows thick on the bear’s hide.” Moreover, in some cultures, it was the bear, not the groundhog, which predicted if winter would vanish on February 2 or continue another six weeks.
Bear legend, lore and superstition has worked its way into our everyday phrases. The old saying, “like a bear sucking his paws,” refers to someone who is working very hard. This phrase originated with the belief that bears without food would suck its paws to stay alive. To “take a bear by the tooth” means to put oneself in great danger. To describe a person in a foul mood, you might say, “He’s like a bear with a sore paw.”
Settlers killed thousands of black bears for meat, fat, and fur. They cleared the forest habitats for farming. In 1902, attitudes changed drastically when President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a black bear chained to a tree to ensure that the President would not miss. His mercy caught the public’s eye, and “Teddy Bears” were invented to celebrate his compassion.
Once estimated at 12,000 animals throughout Florida, Alabama and southern Georgia, there are less than 1,500 bears today. The human population in Florida grows at a rate of 500-1000 new residents per day. This growth drives development that destroys nearly 20 acres of natural habitat every hour. In addition, the wider and more frequent roadways with increased speed limits have proven deadly to our black bear population.
The black bear is perhaps the strongest symbol for Florida’s diverse wildlife. A wide-ranging omnivore, the bear shares habitat with many of Florida’s other native species. By protecting the bear and its habitat, conservationists also protect many other animals and plants.
Jacksonville Zoo History:
American black bears have been part of the collection off and on since the beginning. The first one arrived in February 1915.