Like most wild animals, bears have sharp, well-developed senses that they rely on for their survival. While their sense of smell is among the greatest in the animal kingdom, it’s often been said that bears have notoriously bad eyesight. However, this is not necessarily true.
In recent years, scientists have found that most bears can see just as well as we human beings, and in some ways, they can actually see much better. Like us, bears can see in great detail, in color, and they can detect subtle movement both near and far. Bears also have excellent night vision, which they make use of quite regularly, as many bears are active thought the night and can sometimes be almost completely nocturnal, especially in places where human activity is high.
Similar to most other mammals, such as dogs, cats, and deer, a bear’s eye has a reflective layer (tapetum lucidum) which lines the back of the eyeball and reflects light back through the retina. This is what produces the bright, glowing eyeball effect when such animals are illuminated by a flashlight or headlights from a passing vehicle.
While bears can also see underwater, which is an ability they make use of while fishing or looking for other aquatic food sources, polar bears especially have keen underwater eyesight as they spend much of their time swimming and hunting for seals. Like other marine mammals, the polar bear has a clear, inner eyelid or membrane (nictitating membrane) which both protects their eyes, as well as serves as a second lens while underwater.
Where Did the Myth of Bad Bear Eyesight Come From?
The myth of bears having poor eyesight has most likely developed for a number of reasons. First, just like we humans, some bears can see better than others. Bears can be farsighted, nearsighted, or lose the sharpness of their vision due to age or injury.
Secondly, unless they’re surprised or startled, bears often don’t respond to the visual presence of something as we would expect them to. Due to their incredible sense of smell, bears are well aware of the presence of humans or other animals long before they see them. So, unless there’s a good reason to fear or react in some other way to the presence of people or other animals, bears will often just mind their own business and not get too excited.
Another reason that bears are mistakenly said to have bad vision is because of their usual lack of direct eye contact…especially with humans and other bears. For most bears, direct, prolonged eye contact can be interpreted as a display of aggression and can lead to conflict…which many bears try to avoid.
So that’s an overview of how well bears can actually see. To watch the video version of this blog article, click here.