In the Field

Bear Claws – Facts and Fiction

Bear Claws – Facts & Fiction

Bears are renowned for having big sharp claws and are often sensationalized in movies, magazines, and books as using those claws primarily as a weapon to savagely rip apart anything that gets in their way. In reality though, bears use their claws for a wide variety of purposes, many of which are not quite so dramatic. A bear’s paw is incredibly dexterous, and they can use their claws much like we humans use our fingers, that is, for a wide variety of finely detailed tasks.

Bears can do things like delicately pick up and manipulate small food items and skin fish with great precision. Bear claws are also designed for activities such as digging…and lots of it! Bears dig holes to bury portions of food that they find or kill to eat later…known as a bear food cache…they tear up the ground looking for roots and rodents, and they also move tons of dirt while preparing their winter dens. In a similar manner, bears use their claws to rip open tree stumps to look for insects to eat as well as digging around on beaches and other areas where a potential meal may be buried.

Brown Bear Claw Close-up
A close up look at the claws of an Alaskan brown bear.


Many bears can also use their claws for climbing trees, but this is mostly limited to smaller species of bears such as black bears. Larger bears, such as Kodiak brown bears and the large grizzly bears of interior regions of wilderness, generally don’t climb trees due to their much heavier bodyweight. However, cubs and lighter-weight bears of those species can and do climb trees, especially when they sense danger.

Along with all the more utilitarian tasks, bears do indeed use their claws as weapons when getting in fights with other bears or lashing back at other creatures that they may perceive as a personal threat. And yes, they can do an incredible amount of damage when unleashing those claws on their target!

Kodiak bear cattle mauling
A fresh wound inflicted by a Kodiak brown bear who wanted some steak for dinner.


Bear Claw Statistics

There are eight different species of bears here on planet earth, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll be looking at the popular bears of North America; the black bear, the brown bear…of which the Kodiak bear and grizzly bear are subspecies of…and the polar bear.

While bear claws are often referred to as being “razor-sharp,” that’s a bit of an exaggeration. While they’re not sharp enough to shave with, they are, however, definitely sharp and pointy enough to grab ahold of salmon and other food items that are not so easy to keep a grip on.

black bear claws close up
A close up look at the claws of a black bear, which are much shorter, but more curved than those of grizzly/brown bears.

Unlike lions and other predatory big cats, a bear’s claws are not retractable. Rather, they remain extended at all times. The size and shape of bear claws differ among the different species. Brown, grizzly, and Kodiak bears have long, straight claws that are around 3-5 inches which can vary in color and lighten with age, ranging from dark brown to almost white. The claws of black bears are much shorter, from 1-2 inches, they’re dark in coloration, and are more curved in shape, which helps them climb trees and rip apart stumps and logs very efficiently. Finally, polar bears have claws that are around 3.5 inches in length and are also rather curved in shape, which helps them when hunting slippery prey items, as well as gripping the icy terrain where they live. Like the grizzly and brown bear, a polar bear’s claws are dark in coloration when they’re young and lighten with age.

The Adventures of King Kodiak, The Biggest Brown Bear in the World, Joseph Classen
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