10 Things You Might Not Know About Grizzly Bears

Joe Raedle, Getty Images
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Ursus arctos horribilis is better known by the more casual term of grizzly bear. These massive, brown-haired predators have a reputation as one of nature’s most formidable killing machines. Standing up to 8 feet tall and weighing 800 pounds, these fierce mammals have captivated—and frightened—humans for centuries. Keep your distance and read up on these facts about their love for munching moths, eating smaller bears, and being polar-curious.

1. THEY’RE ACTUALLY PRETTY LIGHT EATERS.

Grizzlies—more accurately, North American brown bears—are strong enough to make a meal out of whatever they like, including moose, elk, and bison. Despite their reputation for having carnivorous appetites, their diet also consists of nuts, berries, fruits, and leaves. They’ll even eat mice. The gluttony doesn’t kick in until they begin to exhibit hyperphagia, preparing for winter hibernation by chomping down enough food to gain up to three pounds a day.

2. THEY USE “CPR” TO GET AT YOUR FOOD.

A grizzly bear eats fruit in Madrid, Spain
Dani Pozo, AFP/Getty Images

More than 700 grizzlies live in or near Yellowstone National Park, which forces officials to constantly monitor how park visitors and the bears can peacefully co-exist. Because bears rummaging in food containers can lead to unwanted encounters, the park’s Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center tests trash cans and coolers to see if they’re bear-resistant. (Nothing is truly bear-proof.) Often, a bear will use “CPR,” or jumping on a canister with its front legs, in order to make the lid pop off. Containers that can last at least 60 minutes before being opened can be advertised by their manufacturers as being appropriate for bear-inhabited environments.

3. THEY CAN CLIMB TREES.

It's a myth that grizzlies can't climb trees. Though their weight and long claws make climbing difficult [PDF], and they need support from evenly-spaced branches, grizzlies can travel vertically if they choose to.

4. THEY’LL EAT OTHER BEARS.

Two grizzly bears play in a pool at a zoo in France
Jean-Francois Monier, AFP/Getty Images

In addition to being omnivorous, grizzlies can also be classified as cannibals. They’ve been spotted eating the carcasses of black bears in Canada. Calling it a “bear-eat-bear world,” officials at Banff National Park in Alberta said the grizzlies are “opportunistic” and more than willing to devour black bears—sometimes just one-fifth their size—if the occasion calls for it. And it’s not just black bears: One study on bear eating habits published in 2017 recorded a 10-year-old male eating a 6-year-old female brown bear.

5. THEY LOVE MOTHS.

Although grizzlies enjoy eating many insects, moths are at the top of the menu. Researchers have observed that bears are willing to climb to alpine heights at Montana’s Glacier National Park in order to feast on the flying appetizers. Grizzlies will turn over rocks and spend up to 14 hours in a day devouring in excess of 40,000 moths.

6. A PAIR OF THEM ONCE LIVED ON WHITE HOUSE GROUNDS.

A grizzly bear appears at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenseburg, Colorado
John Moore, Getty Images

In what would be considered an ill-advised decision, explorer Zebulon Pike decided to gift his friend President Thomas Jefferson with two grizzly cubs in 1807. Jefferson reluctantly accepted them and kept them in a cage near the north entrance to the White House, and later re-gifted the cubs to museum operator Charles Willson Peale. Sadly, one of them got shot after getting too aggressive with Peale’s family.

7. THEY CAN RUN FASTER THAN USAIN BOLT.

The bears we see in fiction or lazing about in the wild tend to look cumbersome and slow, as most anything weighing nearly a half-ton would. But in a land race, even Olympic champions would be on the losing end. Grizzlies can reportedly run 35 mph, and sustain speeds of up to 28 mph for two miles, faster than Usain Bolt’s 27.78 miles per hour stride (which he can only sustain for a few seconds).

8. THEY MATE WITH POLAR BEARS.

A grizzly bear is shown swimming at a pool in an Illinois zoo
Scott Olson, Getty Images

In parts of Alaska and Canada where grizzlies and polar bears converge, there are sometimes rare sightings of what observers call “grolar bears” or “pizzlies.” With large heads and light-colored fur, they’re a hybrid superbear birthed from some interspecies mating. Typically, it’s male grizzlies who roam into those territories, finding female polar bears to cozy up with. Researchers believe climate change is one reason the two are getting together.

9. THEY KNOW HOW TO COVER THEIR TRACKS.

When it comes to intellect, grizzlies may not get all the same publicity that birds and whales do, but they’re still pretty clever. The bears can remember hotspots for food even if it’s been 10 years since they last visited the area; some have been observed covering tracks or obscuring themselves with rocks and trees to avoid detection by hunters.

10. THEY’RE NOT OUT OF THE WOODS YET.

A grizzly bear and her cub walk in Yellowstone National Park
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

For 42 years, grizzlies at Yellowstone occupied the endangered species list. That ended in 2017, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that a rise in numbers—from 150 in the 1970s to more than 700 today—meant that conservation efforts had been successful. But overall, the grizzly population is still struggling: Fewer than 2000 remain in the lower 48 states, down from 50,000 two centuries ago.

The 10 Fastest Animals in the World

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iStock

Though humans love to assign superlatives—smartest, fastest, strongest—to the creatures of the animal kingdom, those attributes are, in practice, pretty difficult to measure. There are stories of sailfish traveling at 68 mph, for example, but they date to the 1940s and '50s; since then, scientists have determined that anything faster than 33 mph is likely impossible and would lead to "destructive consequences for fin tissues." Old record breaking numbers might be inflated by everything from high wind speeds to inaccurate methodology—not to mention the difficulty of determining the top speed of animals that may or may not be going full out when measured, or the lack of measuring all animals all the time (which means that there still might be record breakers out there). But of the measurements that have been done—and with those caveats in mind—scientists have determined that these 10 creatures are good candidates for the fastest animals on Earth.

10. QUARTER HORSE // 55 MPH

A tan-colored horse running with its mane flying out behind it.
iStock

At the lower end of the list there are several animals that run around the same speed. One of these is the quarter horse, which is generally faster than its more famous thoroughbred relatives—at least over short distances like a quarter mile. And the differences can be pronounced: One study found that over various races of various distances the quarter horse averaged 45 miles per hour, while the thoroughbred averaged only 35 mph—although the thoroughbred generally ran longer races. More impressively, the quarter horse was able to manage over 55 mph near the end of the race [PDF].

9. SPRINGBOK // 60 MPH

A springbok jumping high above yellow grass.
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According to recent research, the black wildebeest has unusual muscle fibers that allow it to run at high speeds for long distances. It's thought that the springbok—which is related to the wildebeest—may also have these fibers, which allows them to escape predators on the African Savannah.

8. PRONGHORN // APPROXIMATELY 40-62 MPH

A pronghorn running.
iStock

The pronghorn is frequently cited as the second fastest land animal on Earth, although many of those speed estimates are based on studies from the 1940s [PDF], when researchers proposed they could run at around 60 mph. Other observations have put pronghorns running almost seven miles in just 10 minutes, which works out to 40 mph.

7. ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD // 61 MPH

An Anna's hummingbird in flight.
iStock

This little critter can travel at 61 mph for short distances during mating dives. That fact alone is impressive, but this hummingbird is a good candidate for fastest vertebrate by body lengths per second. According to a 2009 paper, it can reach speeds of 385 body lengths per second (that figure doesn't factor in the avian's .59-inch bill; factoring that in reduces the speed to around 320 bl/s). By comparison, the space shuttle reentering the atmosphere travels at around 207 bl/s. For a blue whale to match this hummingbird's relative speed, it would have to circle the entire planet in about an hour.

6. CHEETAH // 65 MPH

A cheetah running.
iStock

The top speed of a cheetah is extremely difficult to determine. One of the fastest reliable records was obtained by a conservationist and the cheetah he'd raised. He attached some meat behind his vehicle and took off, and the cat gave chase, clocking approximately 64 mph over the trials. Meanwhile, a cheetah from the Cincinnati Zoo managed 61 mph in 2012. But these numbers aren't indicative of wild cheetah speed: When scientists put GPS collars on wild cheetahs, they found that although one reached 59 mph, the average top speed was just 33 mph, because it's easier to maneuver at slower speeds.

5. COMMON SWIFT // 70 MPH

A common swift flying.
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Many sources claim that the fastest bird in level flight is the white-throated needletail, sometimes called the spine-tailed swift. But there's no evidence for the methodology behind determining the record, so it's rarely considered valid. So this spot belongs to another swift: One specimen of common swift was observed flying at almost 70 mph.

4. GRAY-HEADED ALBATROSS // APPROXIMATELY 80 MPH

A gray-headed albatross flying.
iStock

The official Guinness World Record for fastest bird in level flight, however, doesn't go to the common swift. It goes to the gray-headed albatross, specifically one gray-headed albatross that got caught in an Antarctic storm. The paper detailing this record holder explained that "typical air speed of small albatrosses flying with a tail wind is [20±9 miles per hour], that speed being relatively constant with increasing wind force" and noted that the bird seemed to have a 40 to 50 mph tailwind. Audubon summarized this as "the equivalent of avian steroids."

3. HYBOMITRA HINEI WRIGHTI // APPROXIMATELY 90 MPH (WE THINK)

A horse fly sitting on a rock.
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According to an article published in Discover in 2000, an entomologist at the University of Florida attempted to recreate the mating behavior of the Hybomitra hinei wrighti horsefly. Males of this species chase and catch the females, and together they fall to the ground. To simulate this, the researcher fired a plastic pellet from an air rifle; the male horsefly chased the pellet, reaching speeds of at least 90 mph. Since then, little research has been done on the subject, and the result is noted as being "a noteworthy record" in "the unrefereed literature."

2. BRAZILIAN FREE-TAILED BATS // 100 MPH (MAYBE)

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According to a 2016 paper, all seven of the Brazilian free-tailed bats studied traveled faster than 55 mph. Five hit almost 70 mph and one flew 100 miles per hour, making it potentially the fastest flying animal in the world. Some scientists that spoke to New Scientist were skeptical of the record, however, saying that the bats may have had gravity or wind assists, but the authors of the study expressed confidence in their results.

1. PEREGRINE FALCON // 200+ MPH

A peregrine falcon flying.
iStock

It's often said that the peregrine falcon can fly around 200 mph, which isn't the entire story. In level flight, the peregrine falcon is usually thought to max out at 40 to 60 mph—fast, but not ridiculously so. It reaches its top speed by falling in a specialized hunting dive called a stoop.

(This may seem like a bit of a cheat—extreme human skydivers can go considerably faster, and if diving speed for all other creatures were counted, this list would be almost entirely birds. A paper published in 2001 [PDF] looked at several dive speeds of just passerine birds and found a barn swallow that dived at 117 mph, a yellow wagtail diving at 118, and a pied flycatcher diving at 120 mph.)

For years, there was suspicion of this top speed, and in the 1990s, some researchers pegged the birds at a more reasonable stoop speed of 90 miles per hour. It wasn't until the 2000s that a researcher began skydiving with a peregrine falcon. Together they were diving at speeds well in excess of 200 mph. But because this is a dive, the title of fastest animal on Earth is still open to debate.

People Really Do Feel For Dogs More Than Humans

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iStock

If you have a harder time empathizing with human suffering than with pets in peril, you’re not alone. According to a study published earlier this year in Society & Animals, humans may project more pity when a dog is perceived to be in trouble than when a person is ailing under similar circumstances.

To assess whether people were more concerned with dogs than with their fellow Homo sapiens, researchers at Northwestern University gathered 240 undergraduate subjects between the ages of 18 and 23 and gave them a series of fictitious newspaper stories about a senseless attack. In all of the stories, the victim was hit with a baseball bat, suffered a broken leg and lacerations, and was found unconscious by first responders.

While those details remained consistent, researchers randomized the text so it would mention one of four victims: an adult, a 1-year-old infant, a 6-year-old dog, or a puppy. (Yes, this study used the premise of a baby being pummeled with a bat. All in the name of science.)

The researchers suspected that the victims' age, not species—where a younger age would indicate a greater degree of vulnerability—would determine participants' empathy for them. Using questions to measure their empathy levels on a numerical scale from seven (little empathy) to 112 (a lot of empathy), the organizers then quizzed subjects on how they felt about each of the cases. They were most upset by the attacks on the infant, followed by the puppy and older dog. The adult human, while considered tragic, scored lowest. "Age makes a difference for empathy toward human victims, but not for dog victims," the researchers wrote.

Female participants, who made up almost three-quarters of the study group, were also found to be much more sympathetic toward all of the victims than male participants.

The authors say the results were borne out, in part, of the perceived helplessness of the victims, regardless of whether they were puppies or children. In the end, one thing is reasonably certain: We're just as concerned about our fur babies as we are with young humans.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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