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Wild Personalities: All About Bears

Majestic and strong yet lumbering and pigeon-toed, bears can be spotted against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains in Alaska or hunting for seals on Arctic pack ice. Our expeditions traverse the globe to enter the realms of the black, brown, and polar bear as well as Borneo’s adorable and endangered sun bear. Get to know the different species we encounter out in the wild with this mini guide.  —Copy by Melissa Klurman Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up


Polar Bear

Scientific name: Ursus maritimus
Habitat: Arctic tundra
Size: 5 to 8 feet tall; 650 to 1,200 pounds
Diet: Carnivore
Life Expectancy: 21 to 25 years

There are few animals as closely associated with their location as polar bears are to the Arctic. Endemic to the icy tundra, they are not only the largest of the world’s eight bear species, but also the largest land carnivores. Uniquely adapted to survive in the harsh frozen tundra, polar bears are at the top of the food chain with no natural predators.

Although these bears appear white when you spot them on the pack ice, that’s just an illusion—their fur is comprised of clear, hollow keratin tubes filled with air that reflect the light of their snowy, white surroundings. Our keen-eyed naturalists will scan the seas night and day looking for telltale signs of these Kings of the Arctic. If spotted, try these polar photography tips to capture your best photo of a bear.

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Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Coastal Brown Bear

Scientific name: Ursus arctos
Habitat: Coastal Alaska
Size: 6 to 10 feet long; 600 to 1,200 pounds
Diet: Salmon-centric omnivore
Life Expectancy:
25 years

As noted in their name, coastal brown bears are primarily found near the southern shores of Alaska, drawn here by the abundant supply of salmon, their main food source. Extremely skilled at fishing, these bears can be spotted at the top of waterfalls waiting for salmon swimming upstream, or comically snorkeling, face down in the water, looking for some of the 30 or so fish per day that make up their diets in the warm Alaskan summer. Due to that fatty, fish-rich diet, Alaska’s coastal brown bears are some of the largest in the world as they bulk up before winter arrives.

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When you are where wild bears live you learn to pay attention to the rhythm of the land and yourself. Bears not only make the habitat rich, they enrich us just by being.

Author Linda Jo Hunter

Grizzly Bear

Scientific Name: Ursus arctos horriblis
Habitat: North America, Europe, Alaska, Canada
Size: 5 to 8 feet long; 400 to 700 pounds
Diet: Omnivore
Life Expectancy: 20 to 25 years

Closely related to the brown bear, grizzly bears are a subspecies whose main differentiator is location. Grizzlies can be found in the interior of Alaska where they forage among the forests, fields, and streams for grasses, roots, berries, worms, and ants, as well as hunt for a range of prey from trout to squirrels to larger animals like elk.

Slightly lighter in color than their coastal cousins, their white tipped fur gives them a "grizzled" look, the source of their name. Also like a brown bear, grizzlies have a distingushable large shoulder hump, the result of a mass of muscles that give the bears additional strength both for digging and hunting. These communicative bears use a range of sounds, including grunts, growls, and moans, to converse with their young or potential mates and they rub their bodies on trees to alert other bears to their presence. 

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Sun Bear

Scientific Name: Helarctos malayanus
Habitat: Southeast Asia
Size: 4 to 5 feet long; 60 to 150 pounds
Diet: Omnivore
Life Expectancy: 25 years


The sun bear is the smallest, and one of the rarest, species of bears in the world. At first glance, they could be mistaken for a primate, climbing trees with great agility and building nests up in the leafy branches. This little bear is well-adapted for life up in the trees thanks to its small stature, long claws, and large paws with hairless soles. However, they do come down to the ground to forage for the roots, insects, fruits, and lizards that make up much of their diet.

Sun bears earned their celestial name from the light-colored marking on their chest that resembles a rising or setting sun. Each bear’s crest stands out against their dark brown fur and is unique, just like a fingerprint. You can learn more about these endangered species at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center which we visit on our Wonders of the Western Pacific voyage.

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American Black Bear

Scientific Name: Ursus americanus
Habitat: Throughout North America, including northern Mexico
Size: 5 to 6 feet tall; 200 to 600 pounds
Diet: Omnivore
Life Expectancy: 20 years


If you live in North America, chances are you are familiar with black bears, since they’re the most common bear on the continent. They are also the smallest of the three North American species after polar bears and brown bears. Although black bears are sometimes mistaken for grizzlies, the easiest way to distinguish them is by the lack of a pronounced shoulder hump. Black bears also have more flattened noses and shorter claws than grizzlies.

These opportunistic carnivores will eat almost anything from nuts and pinecones in the spring to nutrient-rich salmon and meat in the summer and fall. (Black bears are also known to help themselves to your campsite goodies and will quickly adapt to human food sources, creating a danger to humans and bears alike.) Their fatty diet serves to insulate them from the cold winter months when they hibernate in their winter dens, reemerging from their fasting state in the spring.

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