To the untrained eye of the casual observer, the mighty brown bears of Alaska can all look pretty much the same. After all, they’re big, brown, furry, have large teeth and sharp claws. What’s so special about that? In reality though, bears, just like people, have unique physical characteristics and personalities that do significantly differentiate them from one another. In this blog and video, we’ll explore some of these unique characteristics that wildlife biologists and others use to identify individual grizzly / brown / Kodiak bears from others.
It’s very common for wildlife biologists, rangers, guides, photographers, and others who spend a lot of time around the big brown bears of Alaska to be able to clearly identify individual bears from others in the same way that we identify individual people from other humans. For example, many of the bears that frequent popular bear viewing locations such as Books Falls, have been given unique names and can all be identified by a number of unique characteristics. Identifying and even naming bears in such a manner is an effective tool for studying them and monitoring their activity throughout the years. The most common characteristics that are used to identify bears are the following:
Gender Characteristics – Body Shape & Size
One of the first means of identifying a bear is by distinguishing its gender. I did an entire video on this subject a while ago, so I won’t repeat everything here, but there are some fairly easy ways to clearly identify a bear’s gender, including mammary glands and visible sex organs. Along with the obvious signs, the body shape of the bear can be another indicator. 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 set of features that can be used to identify male from female bears in general, as well as individual bears from others is their head and ears. 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 on individual bears can also sometimes be missing or damaged in a way that can be used to clearly identify a particular bear.
Just as we humans have very unique, individual faces, so do bears. This is a means of identification that takes a little more time and study to develop, but when you spend enough time around a group of bears in a certain area, you being to recognize their faces quite clearly. Some bears have a longer or shorter muzzle, a slightly different structure to their face, or other facial features that will make it relatively easy to tell them apart.
Scars and Wounds
A bear’s face and upper body can be sometimes 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. The scars and wounds that bears accumulate serve as a very easy and accurate way to identify certain bears. In fact, some bears become rather famous for their scars and wounds, such as this bear, nicknamed Holyfield, who I did a past video about.
Brown bears can have different colored claws, from dark brown and almost black, to tan and almost white-looking claws. These color variations can also be used as a unique point of reference for identifying certain bears.
Mood and Disposition
Just like we humans, some bears are pretty laid back and don’t seem to get too upset by much of anything, and others are often in a bad mood and easily become aggressive. When observing how a certain bear interacts with other bears, it’ll be quite easy to identify what the bear’s primary disposition is, which is also usually a reflection of that bear’s level of dominance in the local bear hierarchy. Both of which can be used to distinguish individual bears from others.
Fur Color and Shed Pattern
While all brown bears have essentially brown fur, there can be quite a bit of color variation, from light blond to dark chocolate and almost black in coloration. When bears shed their fur from year to year, they leave a fairly consistent shed pattern which is another means of identifying individual bears from each other.
Just as we humans all have different talents and unique behaviors, bears are much the same. For example, some bears are really good at fishing and will employ a certain technique to consistently catch their fish (which is also something I’ve done a past video about) and other bears might be terrible at catching fish. Bears can have very different behaviors from one another and do things quite differently, which again are all ways to identify them from each other. So add up all these different characteristics and behaviors, and you can see that there are many ways to clearly identify individual bears from the rest of their kind. Check out the video below to see more…