A black bear moves cautiously on the outskirts of the woods.
A black bear moves cautiously on the outskirts of the woods.
Photograph by BARRETT HEDGES / National Geographic Image Collection

Black Bear

Common Name:
American black bears
Scientific Name:
Ursus americanus
Group Name:
Sleuth, sloth
Average Life Span In The Wild:
20 years
5 to 6 feet long
200 to 600 pounds

Balanced on a rock in the middle of a river, a black bear lowers her head to the water and … chomp! A wriggling salmon is no match for her strong jaws. She’s spent the summer eating berries and roots—now she’s eating all the salmon she can catch to gain as much weight as possible. She needs enough stored fat for her body to make milk for newborn cubs this winter.


Black bears live throughout most of North America, including northern Mexico. They typically live in forests and are excellent tree climbers, even sleeping in trees during the summer. They’re also found in mountains and swamps. Despite their name, black bears can be blue-gray or blue-black, brown, cinnamon, or even sometimes (rarely) white.

In addition to eating berries, roots, and salmon, black bears also prey on deer, moose, insects, and sometimes even carrion (dead animal flesh left behind by other predators). They’re not picky eaters, since their goal is to store up as much body fat as possible before their winter hibernation.


In late November and early December, black bears head to their dens to sleep away the winter, or hibernate. Their body temperature and heart rate are lowered, and their breathing slows down while they live off the huge amounts of body fat they stored up during the summer and fall. This way, they don’t have to leave their dens and hunt for food in the bitter cold.


Male black bears leave their dens around mid-March, but females stay a little longer. That’s because they give birth around January and want to give their cubs time to nurse and grow bigger before heading back outside in the early spring.

Black bear cubs stay with Mom for one to three years while she teaches them how to live in the wild. Then, when they’re ready, they head off to survive in the woods alone—until they start a family of their own.