Bears are fascinating creatures that are associated with many legends and sleep for half the year. They can cause concern if they come close to settlements, although they almost never attack people.
Large variations in size and colour
The Scandinavian brown bear can vary widely in size and colour. The normal weight of an adult bear is between 60 kg and 250 kg. The largest male bear found in Sweden weighed 352 kg.
About the brown bearScientific name:
Males 100–250 kg, females 60–100 kgLength:
100–280 cm, height up to 135 cmSexual maturity:
3–4 yearsBreeding season:
Gestation: 7–8 monthNumber of young:
1–4 (usually 2–3)Lifespan:
Approx. 30 years in the wild, or approx. 40 years in animal parksEats:
Both plants and animalsDistribution in Sweden:
Värmland, Dalarna, Hälsingland, Gästrikland and northwards
Their fur is thick, varying in colour from light brown to almost black, but very light colours can also occur. Young bears often have a light-coloured marking around the neck. Each foot has five long, curved claws that the bear uses to scratch out food and climb trees. The bear’s skull shows that they are omnivorous, with powerful canine teeth that are used to kill prey, while the blunt molars grind up plant food.
The nose is the bear’s most important sensory organ, and they have a highly sensitive sense of smell. They also have sharp hearing, but probably have worse eyesight than a human. When uncertain, they often stand up on their hind legs to find out what is in front of them, although this is not a threatening behaviour.
Bears can cover large distances in a day and are very fast over short stretches, moving at speeds of up to 65–70 kilometres per hour. They are also good climbers and swimmers.
Whistling and roaring cries
It is often said that bears sometimes make a whistling sound. However, according to nature photographers, hunters and zoo workers, there is little evidence that bears can actually whistle. However, they generally agree that bears make a blowing sound that can resemble a soft whistle. Angry bears may make a roaring sound that can be heard for several kilometres.
Omnivores with a varied diet
A brown bear’s diet varies during the year. When the bear wakes up in its den, it has not eaten anything for five or six months. In the spring, food supplies are limited and the bear eats whatever is available. This will normally consist of a lot of ants, grass and herbs. In the early summer, its diet is supplemented with elk calves, while in the autumn it almost exclusively eats berries, mostly crowberries and blueberries. Over the course of the year, 50 percent of its energy intake comes from berries, 20–25 percent from elks and 20–25 percent from ants.
Has young every other year at most
Adult females and males live separately throughout the year, except during the mating season, which is most intense from 30 May to 10 June. The female gives birth to cubs the size of guinea pigs in January or February. By the time they leave the den in April or May, they weigh 2 to 4 kilograms.
A female bear reaches sexual maturity at the age of three to four years, after which she has cubs every other year at most. Two or three cubs are normally born in each litter, but sometimes there are as many as four. The cubs follow their mother for a year or two, but bear cubs that are abandoned often do quite well on their own after their first summer.
Research has shown that it is relatively common for males to kill bear cubs that are not their own offspring. They can thereby induce the females to come into heat more quickly. However, females may respond to this by mating with as many males as possible. A male bear is not thought to recognise his cubs, but rather the female he has previously mated with.
Hibernation when the snow comes
Swedish brown bears normally go into hibernation in October or November. It is usually said that hibernation often coincides with the first snowfall. Hibernation is a strategy for surviving the winter, when access to food is scarce. During hibernation, they do not eat or drink anything at all. They normally hibernate from the end of October until the end of April. The length of hibernation varies depending on the location and the weather, and a female bear with cubs may stay in the den slightly longer. The bear does not then hibernate, but can wake up and go back to sleep several times.
Growth in numbers
We probably have more brown bears today than has been the case for about 150 years. In the late 19th century and the early twentieth century, brown bears almost became extinct. After a long period of slow growth in the Scandinavian bear population, we have seen increasing growth in numbers over the last 30 years. As recently as 2000, scientists thought there were seven to eight hundred brown bears in Sweden. However, new surveying methods and continued growth have led scientists to estimate that there are now around 3,000 brown bears in the country.
The majority of Sweden’s brown bears can be found in Norrland and Dalarna, although they are beginning to spread further south. There is now also a permanent presence in Uppland and Värmland. Bears move around slowly, as the females are reluctant to travel far from where they were born to establish their own home range. In principle, bears can live anywhere in Sweden. Access to blueberries, elk calves, reindeer calves and ants should be sufficient throughout the country.
Bears living in home ranges do not defend their territories. Home ranges vary in size, but are typically 150,000 hectares for males – an area the size of Gotland – and 50,000 hectares for females.
Little risk of being injured by a bear in the forest
With growing numbers of bears, more and more people are encountering bears in the forest, although the chance of coming across a bear is still very low and the risk of being injured by a bear is even lower. Nevertheless, a few people each year have surprised a bear and been injured in recent years. In the last three decades, more than 30 people have been injured – two of them fatally. Most of these incidents have happened while hunting, with hunters sneaking around in the terrain – often with a dog that has annoyed the bear. This, combined with the fact that bears are a relatively new forest phenomenon in many areas, has made people hesitant and afraid. Statistically, however, the risk of being injured by a bear in the forest is very low. If you do not have a dog and are not out hunting, the risk is virtually non-existent. But that is not to say that bears are harmless – in the event of a bear encounter, you should always show some respect for the animal!
Bear numbers are regulated by wildlife management hunting
To control the number of bears and to prevent harm to domestic animals and reindeer, wildlife management hunting and some licensed hunting are carried out. During the past ten years, more than 3,000 bears have been shot in Sweden.
The brown bear is classified as ‘Near-threatened’ on the Swedish Species Information Centre’s red list (in Swedish).
Did you know…
The bear often stands on its hind legs to get a better view of what is in front of it, but this is not a threatening behaviour.