The bears of North America can often be difficult to identify in regard to their size, age, and gender, especially from long distances. I’ve done a past video about how to field judge the overall size and maturity of bears, but in this blog and video, we’ll take a look at the topic of how to identify a bear’s gender, using the brown bears of Alaska as an example.
First and foremost are the obvious. If a bear has cubs with it, either trailing behind or nursing, it’s obviously a female bear. And, even if cubs are not present, if the bear has discernable mammary glands, it’s another sure sign that it’s a sow, which is what female bears are called. Likewise, if a bear is out in the open and you have a good vantage point, as well as good optics, it’s often quite obvious when you’re looking at a male bear due to its visible sex organs. Another rather easy way to discern a male from a female bear is how they urinate. If the bear urinates straight down and forward in-between its legs, it’s a male. If the bear urinates outward and to the rear, or squats to urinate, it’s a female.
The next thing to consider is the body shape of the bear. Mature male bears have wide, muscular shoulders, which are much wider than their head, a bulky midsection, and big, heavy front legs that remain thick all the way down to their ankles. Mature female bears, on the other hand, have a pear-shaped body, with a big butt, narrow shoulders which are about the same width as their head, and short, thin legs that taper down to thin ankles. Female bears often appear to be closer to the ground than males due to their shorter legs.
Head and Ears
Another feature to examine closely is the head and ears of a mature bear. Male bears, or boars, as they’re referred to, have a wide, square-shaped head with a thickly muscled forehead and a deep valley down the middle, kind of like a butt crack. Mature females have a smaller, more narrow-shaped head. The ears on mature brown bears, both male and female, will appear small and set wide apart, almost on the side of the head instead of on top as seen on younger bears. Ears can also sometimes be missing or damaged and a bear’s face and upper body can be covered in scars from fighting. While male bears tend to have more of these features, females can also get pretty beat up while defending their cubs from aggressive males, so these are not always the best features to rely on when trying to distinguish gender.
Another characteristic that is slightly different between male and female bears is that of their muzzle. A mature male bear has a thick, blocky muzzle, whereas the female’s is generally more tapered. This is another feature that’s really not the best for trying to judge a bear’s gender on though. Studying the body shape features, and looking for the more obvious signs is always your best bet.
It’s also important to be aware that male and female subadult bears, which are bears that are under five years old, can often be confused with adult female bears, as they have similar features, such as skinny legs, small ankles, smaller shoulders, a smaller head, and a skinny neck. A key feature to look for on subadult bears is the ears, which will appear disproportionately large as compared to the rest of the head, will be closer together, and will appear more on top of the head instead of off to the side.
Check out the video below to see more…