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Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Body Weight 130-550 kg (287-1213 lb) 80-250 kg (176-551 lb)
Head/Body Length 1-2.8 m (3.3-9.2 ft) 1-2.8 m (3.3-9.2 ft)
Shoulder Height Up to 1.5 m (5 ft) Up to 1.5 m (5 ft)
Tail Length 60-200 mm (2-8 in) 60-200 mm (2-8 in)

General Appearance

A massive bear with small, round eyes and ears, a dished-in snout, distinct shoulder hump, powerful body; only Polar Bears are heavier.

Diet largely determines size (Schwartz et al 2003)

  • Largest brown bears have access to meat
  • Bears with vegetable diet are smaller.


  • Color varies from pale tan, blond, gold, many shades of brown to near black, and gray or silver. (Pasitschniak-Arts 1993)
  • Black and partial black fur phases in eastern and central Asia. (Garshelis 2009)
  • Grizzly's guard hairs often pale at tips
  • Underfur grown in fall and molted in spring

Sexual Dimorphism

Males 1.2-2.2 times larger than females - extreme dimorphism.

Most likely due to competition between males during breeding season.

Other Characteristics

Largest Brown Bears - Western Alaska and British Columbia; Kodiak and Admiralty Islands.
Teeth and skulls not as specialized for biting and shearing as those of many meat-eating dogs and cats. (Sacco and Van Valkenburgh 2004)

  • No shearing molars (carnassials)
  • Canine teeth long
  • First three premolars small or not present
  • Molars broad, flat
  • Teeth suited for wide variety of food items from insects to large ungulates

Most reliable way to distinguish a Black Bear skeleton from that of a Grizzly Bear: (Gordon 1977)

  • Grizzly's 1st molar in lower jaw is longer than 20.4 mm (.8 in) and wider than 10.5 mm (.4 in)

Other good ways to distinguish Black and Brown Bears:

  • Grizzly has shoulder hump; Black Bear doesn't
  • Grizzly has "dished' (concave) snout that is shorter than a Black Bear's
  • Grizzly's ears are short and rounded; Black Bears' are larger and more pointed
  • Grizzly's claws are much longer.

Eyesight not keen but used for finding berries and nuts
Hearing and sense of smell acute.
Feet plantigrade (walk "flat-footed"); soles hairy

  • Five digits on each limb
  • Very long slightly curved claws 5-10 cm (2-4 in)
  • Claws used for digging; not well adapted for climbing trees

Female has 6 teats
Digestive tract similar to other carnivores except for its length (more surface for absorbing plant nutrients)
No fat deposits on artery walls (no arteriosclerosis); can gain significant weight in autumn (and lose in spring) with no ill effects. (Craighead 1979)

  • Recent studies suggest bears finely regulate calcium levels in blood and prevent its deposition in artery walls, which in turn prevents plaque build-up. (Gamble 2006)

Physiology differs from other carnivores - have a period of winter dormancy (hibernation) with profound changes in body chemistry, metabolism, breathing rate, and moderate changes in body temperature (Schwartz et al 2003)

  • Females with young may loose up to 43% of body mass during denning. (Garshelis 2009)

Polar-Bear/ Grizzly hybrids are fertile (Davis 1950)

Brown Bear

a golden coated Brown Bear

a black coated Brown Bear

Color can vary from pale tan, blond, gold, many shades of brown to near black, and gray or silver.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Craighead (1979)
Garshelis (2009)
Kurt (1990)
Pasitschniak-Arts (1993)
Sacco and Van Valkenburgh (2004)
Schwartz et al (2003)

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