Let us say you are out taking a stroll in bear country and you come across a mother and her cub. Would you know the distinction between a black bear and a brown bear?

It is important to know what type of bear you are approaching as this will determine your reaction just in case something goes wrong. There are three main indicators you should look out for when trying to spot the difference between a black and brown bear: The size of the shoulders, the face profile, and the length of the claws.

There is a blurred line when it comes to presuming that you can tell the difference between a black and brown bear by comparing their sizes or the color of their coats.

All About the Shoulders

One of the first characteristics that will define whether you are looking at a black or brown bear will be the shoulders. Brown bears tend to have a distinctive hump in the shoulder.

If the bear is walking on all fours, a brown bear’s backside will be lower than the hump. The bulge will be the highest point on the body. This bulky muscle mass is caused by powerful forelimbs that allow the brown bear to be an exceptional digger.

Black bears, on the other hand, do not have a hump in the shoulders. When walking, you will unmistakably see the rump or middle back of the black bear being higher than the shoulders.

Illustration by BearSmart

Facial Profile

It might be a little unnerving to eyeball a bear directly in the face, but this is one way to determine whether you are staring at a brown or black bear.

The face of a brown bear will appear concave or dish-shaped, especially between the eyes and the tip of the nose. They have small, furry ears that take a round shape, proportional to the size of the bear’s head.

Brown bears have deep-set eyes and the snout sticks out prominently from its face. The fur around the face is fuzzy and also sticks out.

Black bears, on the contrary, have a straight facial profile. If the bear is facing sideways, you can make out a straight line from the eyes to the tip of the nose. They have large, pointed ears that resemble those of a German Shepherd dog. The snout of the black bear blends into its head and their eyes are set further apart. Their fur lays flat, closer to the body.

Let the Footprint Decide

While it could be tricky to inspect a bear’s toes, if you get the chance to discover a footprint, you can tell whether you are about to encounter a brown or black bear.

When you come across a paw print, have a look at the toes. If the toes are close together and are formed in a straight line, that is a sign of a brown bear. They also have exceptionally long claws, approximately 2″ to 4″ long to assist in digging. The claw marks are visible on tracks.

The toe prints of a black bear are curved with ample spacing between the toes. They have short claws, almost 1.5″ in size. This is a feature that enables black bears to climb trees. The claws do not necessarily show in the tracks.

For the brave at heart who do not mind coming up close and personal with a brown bear, you will spot their visibly long claws. Black bears’ claws are more hidden. Unless of course, it is standing up to defend itself.

Colors Do Not Mean A Thing

It may be easy to reason that black bears have black fur while brown bears have brown fur. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The color of the coat is the least reliable characteristic to try and identify bears.

Black bears are the most colorful of North American mammals. They range from black, cinnamon, blond, brown, blue-grey, or white. Their fur could also include highlights of light and dark hair. Brown bears have fur colors that vary from reddish-blond, light, dark brown, luminous blond to almost black.

Environmental conditions greatly influence the color variation in bears. The geographical area in which they reside will affect their diet and temperature. This, in turn, affects their coats. 

The Western states have black bears with predominantly lighter shades to help reduce heat stress. The lighter colors also help the bears blend well in open meadows. If this is a little confusing, just think of polar bears in the Arctic.

Size Is Nothing but A Number

Brown bears are known to be slightly larger than black bears in both size and weight. This theory wavers when considering whether the bear is male, female, an adult, or a cub. Typically, an adult female brown bear can weigh between 200-350 pounds while the males weigh anywhere from 300-650 pounds.

An adult male black bear can easily weigh the same as an adult female brown bear. A brown bear cub will definitely be shorter and lighter than an adult male black bear. It is therefore difficult to tell the difference between a black and brown bear just from the size.

To put it into perspective, consider this. The largest bear in the world is the Kodiak Bear, found only in the archipelago islands of Alaska. Standing on their hind legs, they can get up to 10 feet (3.05 m) tall and 5 feet (1.52 m) on all fours.

Grizzly Bears Are Brown Bears

All grizzlies are brown bears. However, not all brown bears are grizzlies! The name ’grizzly bear’ comes from the fact that these bears have long guard hairs on their backs and shoulders. Their coat usually has grey streaks or sprinkles, giving the bear a ‘grizzled’ look.

Although ‘brown bear’ is the scientific name for the species, it technically only refers to coastal bears found in Canada and Alaska. Grizzly bears are Arctic bears and those found inland with little or no access to aquatic-derived food resources.

Bear Aware

If you do come across a bear, there are a few things to keep in mind. Unless provoked, bears do not frequently attack humans. Brown bears are more aggressive than black bears, especially when they are mothers with cubs. Do not run from a bear. Bears may be bulky, but they can charge at you at 30 miles/hour. Black bears are great tree climbers, so that is not an option.

Most of all, NEVER scare a bear. Quietly give them their respect and let them go about their business. They have no real interest in humans.

Kelvin Mwathi