American black bear
The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is a medium-sized bear native to North America. It is the continent's smallest and most widely distributed bear species. American black bears are omnivores, with their diets varying greatly depending on season and location. They typically live in largely forested areas, but do leave forests in search of food. Sometimes they become attracted to human communities because of the immediate availability of food. The American black bear is the world's most common bear species.
The ancestors of American black bears and Asian black bears diverged from sun bears 4.58 mya. The American black bear then split from the Asian black bear 4.08 mya. The earliest American black bear fossils, which were located in Port Kennedy, Pennsylvania, greatly resemble the Asian species, though later specimens grew to sizes comparable to grizzly bears. From the Holocene to the present, American black bears seem to have shrunk in size, but this has been disputed because of problems with dating these fossil specimens.
Historically, American black bears occupied the majority of North America's forested regions. Today, they are primarily limited to sparsely settled, forested areas. American black bears currently inhabit much of their original Canadian range, though they seldom occur in the southern farmlands of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba; they have been extinct on Prince Edward Island since 1937. The total Canadian black bear population is between 396,000 and 476,000, based on surveys taken in the mid-1990s in seven Canadian provinces, though this estimate excludes American black bear populations in New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. All provinces indicated stable populations of American black bears over the last decade.
Surveys taken from 35 states in the early 1990s indicate that American black bears are either stable or increasing, except in Idaho and New Mexico. The overall population of American black bears in the United States has been estimated to range between 339,000 and 465,000, though this excludes populations from Alaska, Idaho, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming, whose population sizes are unknown. In the state of California, there are an estimated 25,000-35,000 American black bears, making it the largest population of the species in the contiguous United States.
In most of the contiguous United States, American black bears today are usually found in heavily vegetated mountainous areas, from 400 to 3,000 m (1,300 to 9,800 ft) in elevation. For American black bears living in the American Southwest and Mexico, habitat usually consists of stands of chaparral and pinyon juniper woods. In this region, bears occasionally move to more open areas to feed on prickly pear cactus. At least two distinct, prime habitat types are inhabited in the Southeastern United States. American black bears in the southern Appalachian Mountains survive in predominantly oak-hickory and mixed mesophytic forests. In the coastal areas of the Southeast (such as Florida, the Carolinas and Louisiana), bears inhabit a mixture of flatwoods, bays and swampy hardwood sites.
In areas where human development is relatively low, such as stretches of Canada and Alaska, American black bears tend to be found more regularly in lowland regions. In parts of northeastern Canada, especially Labrador, American black bears have adapted exclusively to semi-open areas that are more typical habitat in North America for brown bears (likely due to the absence here of brown and polar bears, as well as other large carnivore species).
The fur is soft, with dense underfur and long, coarse, thick guard hairs. The fur is not as shaggy or coarse as that of brown bears. American black bear skins can be distinguished from those of Asian black bears by the lack of a white blaze on the chest and hairier footpads. Despite their name, American black bears show a great deal of color variation. Individual coat colors can range from white, blonde, cinnamon, light brown or dark chocolate brown to jet black, with many intermediate variations existing. Silvery-gray American black bears with a blue luster (this is found mostly on the flanks) occur along a portion of coastal Alaska and British Columbia. White to cream-colored American black bears occur in the coastal islands and the adjacent mainland of southwestern British Columbia. Albino specimens have also been recorded. Black coats tend to predominate in moist areas such as Maine, New York, Tennessee, Michigan and western Washington. Approximately 70% of all American black bears are black, though only 50% of American black bears in the Rocky Mountains are black. Many American black bears in northwestern North America are cinnamon, blonde or light brown in color and thus may sometimes be mistaken for grizzly bears. Grizzly (and other types of brown) bears can be distinguished by their shoulder hump, larger size and broader, more concave skull.
American black bears may communicate with various vocal and non-vocal sounds. Tongue-clicking and grunting are the most common sounds and are made in cordial situations to conspecifics, offspring and occasionally humans. During times of fear or nervousness, bears may moan, huff or blow air. Warning sounds include jaw-clicking and lip-popping. In aggressive interactions, American black bears produce deep-throated pulsing sounds. Cubs may squeal, bawl or scream when in distress and make motor-like humming when comfortable or nursing.
American black bears were once not considered true or "deep" hibernators, but because of discoveries about the metabolic changes that allow American black bears to remain dormant for months without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating, most biologists have redefined mammalian hibernation as "specialized, seasonal reduction in metabolism concurrent with scarce food and cold weather". American black bears are now considered highly efficient hibernators. The physiology of American black bears in the wild is closely related to that of bears in captivity. Understanding the physiology of bears in the wild is vital to the bear's success in captivity.
Many of the physiological changes an American black bear exhibits during hibernation are retained slightly post-hibernation. Upon exiting hibernation, bears retain a reduced heart rate and basal metabolic rate. The metabolic rate of a hibernating bear will remain at a reduced level for up to 21 days after hibernation. After emerging from their winter dens in spring, they wander their home ranges for two weeks so that their metabolism accustoms itself to the activity. In mountainous areas, they seek southerly slopes at lower elevations for forage and move to northerly and easterly slopes at higher elevations as summer progresses.