14 Furry Facts About Bears

istock / istock

You can find bears all over the world, in many colors and sizes. You may think you're a bear expert, but here are some facts you might have missed.

1. Winnie the Pooh is based on a real bear.


might be squishy and yellow, but the original Winnie was a black bear. During World War I, a Canadian soldier named Harry Colebourn purchased a baby bear for $20. He named her Winnipeg, or Winnie for short. After a brief stint as the troops' mascot, Winnie found a home at the London Zoological Gardens. All the children loved her, including Christopher Robin Milne, who named his teddy bear after her. His father, Alan Alexander Milne, went on to base the honey-loving bear off Winnie.

2. Smokey the Bear also has real-world origins.

Getty Images

Smokey the Bear (whose actual name is just Smokey Bear) is based off an orphan bear rescued from a wildfire. In 1950, the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico were aflame. As firefighters worked to contain the fire, they noticed a lone bear cub lost in the woods. After getting caught in the path of the flames, he climbed a tree to safety. Although charred, he was rescued by the firefighters and brought to Santa Fe for veterinary care.

Soon the media picked up the story and concerned citizens began to call in to check on the little bear’s progress. The state game warden wrote an official letter declaring the bear the new face of fire prevention and conservation. His popularity grew so much that, by the 1960s, Smokey was given his own zip code (20252) to accommodate his huge amount of fan mail (only he and the president have this honor). Smokey lived the rest of his days at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

3. No one knows the original word for bear.

People in Northern Europe were once so scared of bears that they refused to refer to them by their actual name. It was suspected that uttering the word would summon a bear to come and wreak havoc. As a workaround, they simply called them bruin, or “the brown one.” The moniker later became bear and the original word was lost to history.

4. Grizzly bears and polar bears have been getting together.

Thanks to global warming, polar bears and grizzly bears have been inching closer and closer together. Since they are the most closely related of the bear species, the bears are able to successfully produce offspring. The result is a sandy colored bear, sometimes called a grolar or pizzly bear.

5. One bear recently saved a man’s life.

In 2012, Californian Robert Biggs was hiking near Whiskey Flats when he came across a mother bear and her cubs. After continuing his hike, he was suddenly attacked by a mountain lion. The man fought for his life, but was ultimately saved when the mother bear stepped in and ripped the lion off the man.

"I think the lion was stalking the bear's cub and I got in the way," the hiker told ABC. "The bear walked calmly back to her cub after, and I wrapped my arm up with a T-shirt and went gold panning before I went home."

He also refused to see a doctor despite his wife’s urging. "I poured some hydrogen peroxide on my arm, and it feels fine," Biggs said.

6. Africa used to have their owns bears.

Wikimedia Commons

Up until the 1870s, Africa was home to the Atlas bear. This species was similar to the black bear, but it was hunted to extinction. The bear had a reddish underbelly and ate mostly plants. Roman mosaics suggest the bears were used in gladiatorial arenas to fight experienced hunters or maul convicted criminals.

7. Lord Byron had one as a pet

When poet Lord Byron entered Trinity College, he was annoyed by the school’s strict no dog policy. In protest, he brought a tame bear instead.

It’s unclear where Lord Byron found a bear (possibly a traveling circus), but the school had no rules against the pet, so it was reluctantly allowed. The poet would stroll through campus with the bear on a chain leash and delight in the shocked expressions from fellow students.

8. Even bears have their vices.

Winnie the Pooh hit the honey pretty hard, but real-life bears have even worse addictions. Russian brown bears living on the Kronotsky Nature Reserve have been known to huff old barrels of jet fuel until they pass out. Bears jonesing for another hit will even go as far as to follow helicopters and inhale any fuel that hits the ground.

Bears are also known to have a taste for beer. In 2012, a family of bears ransacked a cabin in northern Norway and guzzled 100 cans of beer. In a similar event in 2004, a bear drank 36 cans of Rainier, but completely ignored the Busch beer (he sampled one and decided it wasn’t to his liking).

9. A Polish bear was made corporal in WWII.

Wikimedia Commons

Winnipeg wasn’t the only bear adopted into the army. During World War II, Polish soldiers came across an abandoned cub. They named him Wojtek and raised him as part of the platoon. The bear got along with the other soldiers famously and stopped a thief who tried to break into the ammunition supply. During the war, the animal helped transport supplies. He was even promoted to corporal by the end of the war.

10. Bears can delay giving birth.

Female bears will carry offspring for about nine months after mating and usually give birth in their winter den in January or February. Despite the long pregnancy, the babies will come out small and blind because they only had about six or eight weeks to develop.

After an egg gets fertilized, the egg will start to develop and travel toward the uterus. Once it arrives, the mother halts all development and lets the egg sit in her uterus while she fattens herself up. The egg is then reactivated in late fall when it can finally implant in the uterus.

This process allows for the mother to gain weight and prepare for the winter without the extra stress of pregnancy. When the baby is finally born in late winter, it has time to drink its mother’s milk and grow strong before heading out in the spring. The baby then has three seasons to get stronger before the next winter.

11. Bears are smart.

Bears have the largest relative brain size of any carnivore. One study showed that black bears could count just as well as primates. Using a computer touch screen, scientists had the bears choose between two images of dots. The color and number of dots would change each time. If the bear chose the correct number (whether it be the higher or lower of the two) it got a treat. With some trial and error, the bears could correctly pick the images each time.

Bears are also very resourceful and known for rolling rocks into traps to set them off.

12. Bears beat humans at our own competitions.

Besides hockey, bears have also found themselves in a number of other games. In 1949, boxer Gus Waldorf fought a bear that was equipped with boxing gloves and a muzzle. Despite having the disadvantage, the bear still won the fight (don't worry, everyone came out alive). More recently, Nathan's hot dog eating champion Kobayashi took on a bear in an eating competition. The bear didn’t know he was competing, but still managed to beat the champion at his own game.

13. The story of the Teddy Bear isn’t that cute.

Most Americans know the origin story of the teddy bear: Theodore Roosevelt was on a hunting trip and spared a bear’s life by refusing to shoot it. The act of compassion was so moving that it was immortalized in a comic strip and then later in the form of a plush toy. Unfortunately, the real story was a little more gruesome.

The old bear was discovered by a pair of hunting dogs, and after killing one of the hounds, the bear was knocked unconscious by the butt of the hunting guide’s rifle. The bear was tied to a tree and Roosevelt was invited to shoot the bear. Seeing the gory sight—a dead dog and a bloody, wheezing bear tied to a tree—Roosevelt was repulsed and refused to shoot. Despite this small "mercy," the bear was still killed and slung over a horse to bring back to camp.

14. They have a great sense of smell.

It’s no mystery that bears have excellent noses. The black bear can smell seven times better than a bloodhound and 100 times better than a human. They can smell food up to two miles away.

BONUS: Bear cubs are darn cute.