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Overview

Comprehensive Description

Bears are a small group of mostly large mammals, with 8 species in 5 genera (Ursus, Tremarctos, Melursus, Helarctos, and Ailuropoda). Although Ursidae is not diverse, species in this family are widespread and culturally significant to human populations throughout their range.

  • Flynn, J., J. Finarelli, S. Zehr, J. Hsu, M. Nedbal. 2005. Molecular phylogeny of the Carnivora (Mammalia): Assessing the impact of increased sampling on resolving enigmatic relationships. Systematic Biology, 54: 317-337.
  • Nowak, R. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World, Fifth Edition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Vaughan, T., J. Ryan, N. Czaplewski. 2000. Mammalogy, 4th edition. New York: Saunders College Publishing.
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Taxonomy and Systematics

The bear family (Ursidae) includes just eight extant species, which are often divided into three subfamilies:

(1) Ailuropodinae (including only the Giant Panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca)

(2) Tremarctinae (including only the Andean or Spectacled Bear, Tremarctos ornatus)

(3) Ursinae or "typical bears" (including the remaining six species).

Garshelis (2009) placed the six ursines in three genera, four in the genus Ursus (Asiatic Black Bear, U. thibetanus; American Black Bear, U. americanus; Brown Bear [generally known as Grizzly Bear where it occurs in North America], U. arctos; and Polar Bear, U. maritimus) and one each in Helarctos (Sun Bear, H. malayanus) and Melursus (Sloth Bear, M. ursinus). He noted, however, that generic placements have varied considerably over the past several decades, ranging from placing each species in its own genus (including only the Brown Bear in Ursus) to placing all bears except for the Giant Panda and Andean Bear in the genus Ursus. When each species was assigned to its own genus, the Polar Bear was placed in the genus Thalarctos, the American Black Bear in Euarctos, and the Asiatic Black Bear in Selenarctos.

Recent molecular phylogenetic analyses indicate that, within Ursinae, one or both of the Sun Bear and Sloth Bear fall within the Ursus clade, suggesting they should not be placed in separate genera, but these same analyses do support the placement of the Giant Panda as basal to the other bears and the Spectacled Bear as basal to a clade including all six ursine species (Agnarsson et al. 2010; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds 2012 and references therein). Thus, molecular results are consistent with the recognition of the three ursid subfamilies originally erected on the basis of morphology and chromosome studies (ursines have 74 chromosome pairs, Andean Bears have 52 pairs, and Giant Pandas have 42 pairs; the chromosomes are mainly acrocentric in ursines, but mostly bi-armed in Giant Panda and Spectacled Bear).

General Ecology

All bear species, with the exception of the Polar Bear, are primarily forest-dwellers, although they do occupy other types of habitats, including scrub, tundra, and alpine areas above treeline. Bears are not common in deserts, although Andean Bears can be found in very dry areas at low elevations along the western slope of the Peruvian Andes, American Black Bears occur in semi-desert habitats in the southwestern United States and Mexico, and Asiatic Black Bears can be found in Baluchistan, an arid thorn brush region of southern Pakistan and Iran. Brown Bears can exist in even more arid conditions and an isolated remnant population persists even in the Gobi Desert of southwestern Mongolia, where the bears cluster around a few scattered oases that are slowly drying up. Bears are known from Africa only as fossils.

All bears exhibit sexual dimorphism in size (with males being larger). This is particularly evident among the largest Brown Bears and Polar Bears, which exhibit sexual size dimorphism exceeded among mammals only by some seals and sea lions. Bears tend to be solitary; they are probably the least social carnivores.

Bears have an extraordinarily well developed sense of smell, apparently more sensitive than that of a dog and several thousand times more sensitive than that of a human.

The food habits of bears are diverse. Polar Bears and Giant Pandas are narrow specialists, feeding almost entirely on seals and bamboo, respectively; the other six bears are omnivorous (feeding on meat, insects, foliage, roots, nuts, berries, etc.), although the Sloth Bear feeds largely on ants and termites. Giant Pandas spend around twelve hours each day collecting and eating bamboo; much of it passes through their gut undigested, so they must consume 9 to 18 kg each day. All bears have large, stout canines used in fighting with other individuals as well as for defense from predators and for acquiring food (e.g., for feeding on seals for Polar Bears, salmon and burrowing rodents for Brown Bears, and ungulates for Brown and Black Bears, and for chewing into insect-harboring wood for Black Bears and Sun Bears). Bears feasting on salmon have been shown to move significant amounts of nitrogen to surrounding terrestrial habitats when they defecate.

The Eight Living Bears

Giant Panda: Giant Pandas once lived in lowland areas of eastern China, but were driven out by habitat loss resulting from human occupation. Today, they occur only in montane forests with dense stands of bamboo at 1200 to 4100 meters (more typically, 1500 to 3000 meters)—remnant areas that could not be farmed. Although at one time the taxonomic placement of the Giant Panda was controversial, in part due to morphological similarities to another bamboo-eater , the "Red Panda" (which is now placed in a family of its own and is no longer believed to be closely related to the Giant Panda), its placement in the bear family is now well established. Giant Pandas have the largest molars of all bears, which they use for crushing and grinding bamboo. Relative to skull size, Giant Pandas have the smallest canines of all bears.

Andean Bear: Andean Bears live in South America on both the eastern and western slopes of the Andes, occurring in high elevation humid cloud forests and tussock grasslands as well as thorn, forest, and scrub desert at lower elevations. They spend much of their time in trees and feed on plants (especially terrestrial bromeliads), fruit, insects, and meat. They are apparently primarily diurnal.

Sun Bear: Sun Bears, the smallest of the bears (adult females are typically less than 45 kg and males less than 65 kg), use their remarkably long tongues to reach into crevices for honey and insects such as stingless bees. These tropical bears are the most agile climbers of all bears, often feeding and even sleeping in trees. Both the common and scientific names of this bear are derived from the yellowish (and highly variable) patch of fur on the chest. Sun Bears are believed to be generally diurnal, except when living in areas with human activity. Much of their foraging is in fruit trees, sliding quickly down the trunk when disturbed (like all bears, they descend from trees tail first). They sometimes sleep in trees, but generally only in areas with human activity; otherwise, they are likely to sleep on the ground, often in tree cavities or under fallen trees.

American Black Bear: American Black Bears can be found from the subarctic to the tropics, from boreal and temperate forests to dry scrub forests and swamps, from sea level to at least 3000 meters elevation. Of all bears, the American Black Bear coexists most easily with humans. Although it occurs in just three countries (albeit large ones: Canada, the United States, and Mexico), its total population is greater than that of all other bears combined.

Asiatic Black Bear: The Asiatic Black Bear has distinctive large "Mickey Mouse" ears. In Asia, Asiatic Black Bears dominate the temperate deciduous forest. In parts of China and the Russian Far East, where Brown Bears and Asiatic Black Bears both occur, the former tend to live in coniferous forests at higher elevations whereas the latter tend to live in broad-leaved forests at lower elevations.

Both Asiatic Black Bears and Sun Bears are found in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, where they co-occur in lowland semi-evergreen, mixed deciduous, and dry dipterocarp forests. Asiatic Black Bears are far more common than Sun Bears in montane evergreen forests above 1200 meters, perhaps due to the scarcity of termites, an important food for Sun Bears when fruit is scarce. Sun Bears range as far west as the tropical wet evergreen forests of eastern India, where they coexist with both Asiatic Black Bears and Sloth Bears, although it is not clear whether the three ever occur ogether in a single patch of forest. The tropical evergreen forests of lower Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra are occupied only by Sun Bears.

Sloth Bear: The tropical and mainly dry forests, scrub, and thorn woodlands of peninsular India and Sri Lanka are occupied only by Sloth Bears. In some areas, forest cover has been so decimated that Sloth Bears may seek shelter in boulder fields, emerging only at night to forage, often in agricultural fields. They also live in alluvial grasslands on the Indian subcontinent, where termites (a preferred prey) are abundant. At higher elevations, in the Himalayas of northern India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Sloth Bears are replaced by Asiatic Black Bears in the foothills and by Brown Bears higher up (Asiatic Black Bears are replaced near the treeline by Brown Bears, which extend well into the alpine tundra; Brown Bears also occur throughout the mostly treeless Tibetan Plateau). Sloth Bears (which were mistakenly classified as sloths two centuries ago) have a shaggy coat, small molars, and a gap in their teeth through which they suck termites (they lack the inner upper incisors). They dig for termites and ants with their long, straight claws and also eat fruit, collected mainly from the ground.

Brown Bear: Brown Bears are so large they face little danger from predators other than other Brown Bears. Despite their imposing bulk, however, they subsist mainly on plant matter, although larger individuals may be more reliant on meat. Bear species often exhibit variation in coat patterns (for example, Black Bears can be black, brown, or even white), but this phenomenon is especially striking in Brown Bears—so much so that early naturalists thought there were some 80 species in North America alone (the "Grizzly Bear" among them). The Brown Bear occurs in North America, Europe, and Asia (and formerly in North Africa). It has the largest range (in terms of latitude, longitude, and elevation), and occupies the greatest diversity of habitats, of any bear species. All other bear species occupy a single continent (or, in the case of the Polar Bear, a single geographic region).

Polar Bear: Polar Bears have a thick layer of fat and dense fur that insulates them in the icy waters of the Arctic. They are very capable swimmers and are often considered marine mammals (although they can stay underwater for just two minutes). Some individuals stay near shore whereas others are more pelagic, but all depend on ice as a platform for hunting seals. Under its thick fur, a Polar Bear's skin is black; the "white" fur is actually translucent. Polar Bears and Brown Bears are closely related and occasionally hybridize. Although some individual Brown Bears may be larger than any Polar Bear, Polar Bears are generally larger than Brown Bears, making the Polar Bear the largest bear. They are almost entirely carnivorous. Polar Bears can have enormous home ranges. One female was tracked traveling from Alaska to Greenland (males are difficult to track since their heads are smaller than their necks, making it difficult to secure a radio collar).

Conservation Status

The conservation status of bears varies greatly among species. Populations of the American Black Bear have actually increased in recent decades.  Brown Bears in North America and parts of Europe are also doing well. In stark contrast, most bear populations in southern Asia (especially Southeast Asia) and probably South America are declining due to habitat loss and poaching. Six of the eight bears (all but American Black Bear and Brown Bear) have been listed as globally threatened on the IUCN Red List (the Giant Panda as Endangered and the others as Vulnerable)—all due to human impacts.

(Garshelis 2009 and references therein)http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7007/10/12

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Distribution

Bears are found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia, but are primarily found throughout the northern hemisphere, historically occurring as far south as the Atlas Mountains of northwestern Africa, the Andes of South America, and the Sunda shelf region. This range has been reduced in historical times as a result of human persecution and habitat destruction. For example, brown bear (Ursus arctos) populations in the Atlas Mountains are thought to be extinct and their range has been significantly altered in North America and Europe.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native ); neotropical (Native )

  • Pasitchniak-Arts, M. 1993. Ursus arctos. Mammalian Species, 439: 1-10.
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Physical Description

Morphology

Bears are large, robustly built animals. The smallest species, Helarctos malayanus ranges in size from 25 to 65 kg, the largest individuals can weigh up to 800 kg (Ursus maritimus). Males are larger than females, sometimes more than twice their size.  Bears have small, rounded ears, small eyes, and very short tails. Most species have long, rough fur, and the hairs that make it up are generally unicolored (rather than being agouti, the common pattern among mammals). Sun bears have a smooth coat. Most bears are brown, black, or white; some have striking white marks on the chest or face. Giant pandas are well-known for their distinctive bands of black and white fur. Bear skulls are massive, with unspecialized incisors, elongate canines, reduced premolars, and bunodont cheek teeth. All bear species possess robust, recurved, non-retractile claws that they use for digging and ripping. The feet of bears are plantigrade, and most have hairy soles, although tree climbing bears, such as Helarctos, have naked soles. There are five digits on each foot. Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) have an additional, opposable feature of the forepaws, sometimes called a panda's "thumb". It is not a true digit but a pad-covered enlargement of the radial sesamoid bone. Pandas use this opposable structure to manipulate bamboo.

The   skulls of bears are elongated. They have an   alisphenoid canal, and the   paroccipital processes are large and not fused to the   bullae, which are not enlarged. Curiously, the   lacrimal bone of bears is vestigial. Their   cheekteeth are bunodont, and the   carnassials are flattened and specialized for crushing, not secodont. The incisors are unspecialized; the canines are long and slightly hooked; and the first three premolars are small and weakly developed if present at all. The dental formula is 3/3, 1/1, 3-4/4, 2/3 = 40-42.

Technical characters

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; heterothermic ; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: male larger

  • Lawlor, T. 1979. Handbook to the Orders and Families of Living Mammals. Eureka, California: Mad River Press.
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Ecology

Habitat

Bears occur in nearly all terrestrial habitats throughout their range, from Arctic tundra and polar ice floes to tropical and temperate forests, mountains, grasslands, and deserts. Although some bear species occur in arid areas, proximity to water is important. Bears are most abundant and diverse in temperate and boreal regions. Most species are habitat generalists, changing preferred foods, activity patterns, and denning quarters with local conditions. Ailuropoda melanoleuca, however, is found primarily in the montane bamboo forests of southern China.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; polar ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: tundra ; taiga ; desert or dune ; savanna or grassland ; chaparral ; forest ; rainforest ; scrub forest ; mountains

  • Chorn, J., R. Hoffman. 1978. Ailuropoda melanoleuca. Mammalian Species, 110: 1-6.
  • DeMaster, D., I. Stirling. 1981. Ursus maritimus. Mammalian Species, 145: 1-7.
  • Fitzgerald, C., P. Krausman. 2002. Helarctos malayanus. Mammalian Species, 696: 1-5.
  • Lariviere, S. 2001. Ursus americanus. Mammalian Species, 647: 1-11.
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Trophic Strategy

Bears are omnivorous and opportunistic. Specific food types may vary by habitat or season. For example, North American brown bears (Ursus arctos) may rely extensively on fruits and insect larvae throughout the year, or may prey extensively on calves during ungulate breeding seasons and on migrating fish. Most species eat primarily fruits and insect larvae but will include vertebrates when they can, carrion, honey, forbs and grasses, seeds, nuts, tubers, fish, and eggs. Bears use their formidable strength, massive forelimbs, and robust claws to tear apart logs and capture prey. Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are dietary specialists, eating primarily bamboo stems and shoots, but will also include small vertebrates, insects, and carrion in their diet. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are the most carnivorous species, preying mainly on seal species, but including fish, small mammals, birds and their eggs, and will scavenge carcasses of whales, walruses, and seals.

Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates); herbivore (Folivore ); omnivore

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Associations

All bear species, because of their omnivorous diet and large size, impact the populations of prey animals and plant communities in the ecosystems in which they live. Polar bear populations and brown bear populations that rely on large prey, exert significant pressure on prey populations, including breeding seals and elk. Bear species may help to disperse seeds from the fruits they eat. Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) rely heavily on scavenging polar bear kills.

Bears are infected by a wide variety of endo and ectoparasites, including: protozoans (Eimeria and Toxoplasma), trematodes (Nannophyetus salminicola, Neoricketsia helminthoeca), cestodes (Anacanthotaenia olseni, Mesocestoides krulli, Multiceps serialis, Taenia species, and Diphyllobothrium species), nematodes (Baylisascaris transfuga, B. multipapillata, Uncinaria yukonensis, U. rauschi, Crenosoma, Thelazia californiensis, Dirofilaria ursi, Trichinella spiralis, and Gongylonema pulchrum), lice (Trichodectes pinguis), fleas (Chaetopsylla setosa, C. tuberculaticeps, Pulex irritans, and Arctopsylla species), and ticks (Dermacentor and Ixodes species). Infection by Trichinella spiralis is especially common, affecting up to 60% of Ursus maritimus and U. arctos.

Ecosystem Impact: disperses seeds

Mutualist Species:

Commensal/Parasitic Species:

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Once bears reach their adult size it is unlikely that they will be subject to predation. Cubs are at risk of predation from conspecific bears, sympatric bear species, and other large predators, such as large cats and canids. Female bears are aggressive in defense of their young.

Known Predators:

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Known prey organisms

Ursidae preys on:
Vulpes vulpes
Odocoileus virginianus
Puma concolor

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Vision and hearing in bears is not well-developed, but they have a keen sense of smell and use their sensitive lips to locate and maneuver food. Ursus americanus has color vision and has been demonstrated using vision to distinguish food items at close range. Little is known about communication in bears, but grunts, moans, and roars are known from most species. Cubs may be especially vocal, uttering "woofs" and shrill howls when distressed. "Chuffing" is used as a greeting in Ursus arctos. Chemical cues may be used by males in locating receptive females. Home range boundaries, individual identity, and sexual condition may be advertised, both visually and chemically, by tree-scratching and by urinating and defecating on boundary trails.

Communication Channels: acoustic ; chemical

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

Bears are long-lived if they survive their first few years of life. Most mortality occurs in young cubs or dispersing juveniles as a result of food stress. Pre-weaning cub mortality was estimated at 10-30% in polar bears and sub-adult mortality at between 3 and 16%. In American black bears in Alaska, sub-adult mortality was estimated at 52 to 86%. Estimates of longevity in the wild are as high as 25 years. Captive animals have been known to live to 50 years or more (Ursus arctos).

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Reproduction

Male and female bears generally associate only briefly for mating. Males monitor the estrus condition of females in their home range and will remain close for a few days when females are receptive. Multiple mating is practiced by both sexes.

Mating System: polygynandrous (promiscuous)

Bears give birth to 1 to 4 young, usually 2, at intervals of 1 to 4 years. There is evidence of delayed implantation in all species. Gestation lengths ranging from 95 to 266 days, with implantation being delayed from 45 to 120 days. Actual gestation lengths may be closer to 60 to 70 days. Births in temperate species occur during the winter when the female is dormant. The cubs nurse during the dormant period and the entire metabolic demands of the female must be met by her fat reserves. Births in Helarctos malayanus may occur at any time of the year. Sexual maturity occurs at from to 3 to 6.5 years old, usually occurring later in males. Growth continues after sexual maturity. Males may not reach their adult size until 10-11 years old. Females reach adult sizes usually around 5 years old.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous ; delayed implantation

Females give birth to their young in protected areas, often a den of some kind, until they are capable of getting around well, at several months of age. Bears are very small when born, from 90 (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) to 680 (Ursus arctos) grams at birth. They are born with their eyes and ears closed and are either naked or with only a fine layer of fur. Cubs grow rapidly, polar bears go from 600 grams at birth to 10 to 15 kg within 4 months. Weaning occurs from 3.5 (Ursus thibetanus) to 9 (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) months. Young stay with their mother for up to 3 years, but young of most species disperse after 18 to 24 months. Females are very protective of their young and it is likely that cubs learn about obtaining food and shelter during their extended juvenile time with their mother.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); extended period of juvenile learning

  • Chorn, J., R. Hoffman. 1978. Ailuropoda melanoleuca. Mammalian Species, 110: 1-6.
  • DeMaster, D., I. Stirling. 1981. Ursus maritimus. Mammalian Species, 145: 1-7.
  • Fitzgerald, C., P. Krausman. 2002. Helarctos malayanus. Mammalian Species, 696: 1-5.
  • Lariviere, S. 2001. Ursus americanus. Mammalian Species, 647: 1-11.
  • Nowak, R. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World, Fifth Edition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Pasitchniak-Arts, M. 1993. Ursus arctos. Mammalian Species, 439: 1-10.
  • Rogers, L. 1999. American black bear. Pp. 157-160 in D Wilson, S Ruff, eds. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Vaughan, T., J. Ryan, N. Czaplewski. 2000. Mammalogy, 4th edition. New York: Saunders College Publishing.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) Stats
Specimen Records:396
Specimens with Sequences:506
Specimens with Barcodes:307
Species:13
Species With Barcodes:12
Public Records:244
Public Species:11
Public BINs:10
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Barcode data

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Conservation

Conservation Status

Bears have been hunted and persecuted throughout human history. Most bear populations continue to face hunting pressure and have become fragmented as a result of human habitat destruction and hunting.

The IUCN ranks Malayan sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) as data deficient, polar bears (Ursus maritimus) as lower risk, Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), sloth bears (Melursus ursinus), and spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus) as vulnerable, and giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca as endangered.

Several brown bear subspecies are listed as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act: Mexican grizzly bears, Ursus arctos nelsoni, European brown bears, U. arctos arctos, and Tibetan brown bears or horse bears, U. arctos pruinosus. Baluchistan bears, Ursus thibetanus gedrosianus, are also considered endangered.

The following species are on Appendix I of CITES: Ailuropoda melanoleuca, Helarctos malayanus, Melursus ursinus, Tremarctos ornatus, Ursus thibetanus, and populations of Ursus arctos in Bhutan, China, Mexico and Mongolia. All other populations of U. arctos are included in Appendix II.

  • Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, 2005. "CITES Appendices I, II, and III" (On-line). Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Accessed July 13, 2005 at http://www.cites.org/eng/app/appendices.shtml.
  • IUCN Species Survival Commission, 2004. "The 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species" (On-line). International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Accessed July 13, 2005 at http://www.redlist.org/.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2005. "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program" (On-line). Accessed July 13, 2005 at http://www.fws.gov/endangered/.
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Bears are often implicated in predation on livestock, although their impact on livestock populations is most often vastly over-stated. This is particularly true of Tremarctos ornatus, which is persecuted for livestock predation despite its primarily frugivorous lifestyle. Bears regularly attack and kill humans when they feel threatened. Females accompanied by their young may be especially aggresssive and unpredictable. Bear attacks that seem at first to be unprovoked, often prove to be inadvertently provoked when investigated. Bears that live near humans, or have become habituated to humans, cause damage by breaking into homes, food stores, and garbage. Some bear species damage crops, such as manioc and corn.

Negative Impacts: injures humans (bites or stings); crop pest

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Bears are important members of healthy ecosystems and are sometimes used as indicator species of habitat health and wildness. Bears have also been hunted by humans throughout history for their meat, fat, and fur. Other body parts are used in traditional Chinese pharmacopias, although their usefulness in curing ailments has never been demonstrated. Research on the metabolic pathways black bears use during their winter torpor may help in the development of treatments for kidney failure, gallstones, severe burns, and other illnesses.

Positive Impacts: body parts are source of valuable material; research and education

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