Differences between black bears and grizzlies

What is the difference between grizzly bears and black bears?


Identifying the difference between grizzly bears and black bears effectively when in the field is very important for our guides here at Farewell Harbour Lodge. While most people believe that black bears are black and grizzly bears are brown, both their colouring can actually range from dark black to a light blonde. Differentiating between the two can sometimes be difficult so we have put together an easy guide that should help you next time you are out in the wild.

The quickest and easiest way to determine who is who, when looking at a bear, is to note the shape of their body. While grizzly bears are generally larger in size, averaging weights of up to 500 pounds, the shape of their body is quite different to that of a black bear. Grizzly bears do a lot of digging during Spring and Fall so develop very pronounced shoulder muscles. This has resulted in an obvious hump on their back making the front of their bodies appear taller. In comparison to this, black bears are wonderful climbers and so have developed very strong back legs so visually the highest part of a black bear is actually their bottom! 

Secondly the shape and size of their heads can differ greatly. This is far more challenging to spot when viewing bears from a boat. Grizzly bears have flatter “dished” faces which highlights the ridge between their eyes and snout like that of a teddy bear; whereas black bears have a straighter profile similar to a dog. As a black bear's head is smaller as well it makes their larger ears much more obvious.

Even when you’re not actively watching bears there are ways in which you can distinguish which bears are in the area or have recently passed through. Of course there is scat (poop), filled with berries during the summer months and salmon during the fall, but other than size it is quite difficult to determine which bear it could be from. One behaviour that both bears display is tree rubbing. Bears will scratch their backs on a particular tree, bite and claw at it in order to leave their scent behind. This usually leaves hair and markings on the tree, but the way to distinguish the difference is to look at the height of these. Black bears are smaller than grizzlies and so markings will be at a lower height. 


Paw prints are also a good give away. Grizzly prints will of course be larger but the shape says it all! Grizzly paws are wider and there is a straighter line beneath the toes on the print. As their claws can reach up to 10cm the markings will be slightly further away from the tops of the toes. Black bear prints are much rounder and this is evident underneath the toe prints. Their claws (for climbing) only reach around 5cm which makes an easy comparison to look for.

They both love similar habitats, the chances of seeing either when out in bear territory are great. Using a few of the comparisons above you should be able to identify who is in the area and be bear aware. There is nothing better than seeing a bear in its natural habitat!

-- By Rebecca Crilly


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