Bears are mammals of the family Ursidae. Bears are classified as caniforms, or doglike carnivorans, with the pinnipeds being their closest living relatives. Although there are only eight living species of bear, they are widespread, appearing in a wide variety of habitats throughout the Northern Hemisphere and partially in the Southern Hemisphere. Bears are found in the continents of North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. Common characteristics of modern bears include a large body with stocky legs, a long snout, shaggy hair, plantigrade paws with five nonretractile claws, and a short tail. While the polar bear is mostly carnivorous and the giant panda feeds almost entirely on bamboo, the remaining six species are omnivorous, with largely varied diets including both plants and animals. With the exceptions of courting individuals and mothers with their young, bears are typically solitary animals.
They are generally diurnal, but may be active during the night (nocturnal) or twilight (crepuscular), particularly around humans. Bears are aided by an excellent sense of smell, and despite their heavy build and awkward gait, they can run quickly and are adept climbers and swimmers. In autumn some bear species forage large amounts of fermented fruits which affects their behaviour. Bears use shelters such as caves and burrows as their dens, which are occupied by most species during the winter for a long period of sleep similar to hibernation. Bears have been hunted since prehistoric times for their meat and fur. To this day, they play a prominent role in the arts, mythology, and other cultural aspects of various human societies. In modern times, the bear's existence has been pressured through the encroachment on its habitats and the illegal trade of bears and bear parts, including the Asian bile bear market. The IUCN lists six bear species as vulnerable or endangered, and even least concern species such as the brown bear are at risk of extirpation in certain countries. The poaching and international trade of these most threatened populations is prohibited, but still ongoing.
The English word "bear" comes from Old English bera and belongs to a family of names for the bear in Germanic languages, in origin from an adjective meaning "brown". In Scandinavia the word for bear is björn (or bjørn), and is a relatively common given name for males. The use of this name is ancient and has been found mentioned in several runestone inscriptions. In Germanic culture, the bear was a symbol of the warrior, as evident from the Old English term beorn which can take the meaning of both "bear" and "warrior". The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European name of the bear is *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, whence Sanskrit r̥kṣa, Avestan arša, Greek ἄρκτος (arktos), Latin ursus, Welsh arth (whence perhaps "Arthur"), Albanian ari, Armenian arj.
Also compared is Hittite ḫartagga-, the name of a monster or predator. In the binomial name of the brown bear, Ursus arctos, Linné simply combined the Latin and Greek names. The Proto-Indo-European word for bear, *h₂ŕ̥tḱos seems to have been subject to taboo deformation or replacement in some languages (as was the word for wolf, wlkwos), resulting in the use of numerous unrelated words with meanings like "brown one" (English bruin) and "honey-eater" (Slavic medved). Thus some Indo-European language groups do not share the same PIE root. The theory of the bear taboo is taught to almost all beginning students of Indo-European and historical linguistics; the putative original PIE word for bear is itself descriptive, because a cognate word in Sanskrit is rakṣas, meaning "harm, injury".
Unlike most other members of the Carnivora, bears have relatively undeveloped carnassial teeth, and their teeth are adapted for a diet that includes a significant amount of vegetable matter. The canine teeth are large, and the molar teeth flat and crushing. There is considerable variation in dental formula even within a given species. It has been suggested that this indicates bears are still in the process of evolving from a carnivorous to a predominantly herbivorous diet. Polar bears appear to have secondarily re-evolved fully functional carnassials, as their diet has switched back towards carnivory. The dental formula for living bears is: Upper: 3.1.2-4.2, lower: 3.1.2-4.3
The bears are mostly found in the northern hemisphere, with a single species, the spectacled bear, occurring in South America. The Atlas Bear, a subspecies of the Brown Bear, was the only bear native to Africa. It was distributed in North Africa from Morocco to Libya, but has been extinct since around the 1870s. All the other species are found in North America, Asia and Europe. The most widespread species is the Brown Bear, which occurs from Western Europe eastwards through Asia to the western areas of North America. The American Black Bear is restricted to North America, and the Polar bear is restricted to the Arctic Sea. All the remaining species are Asian. With the exception of the Polar Bear the bears are mostly forest species. Some species, particularly the Brown Bear, may inhabit or seasonally use other areas such as alpine scrub or tundra.
While many people think that bears are nocturnal, they are in fact generally diurnal, active for the most part during the day. The belief that they are nocturnal apparently comes from the habits of bears that live near humans which engage in some nocturnal activities, such as raiding trash cans or crops while avoiding humans. The sloth bear of Asia is the most nocturnal of the bears, but this varies by individual and females with cubs are often diurnal in order to avoid competition with males and nocturnal predators. Bears are overwhelmingly solitary and are considered to be the most asocial of all the Carnivora. Liaisons between breeding bears are brief, and the only times bears are encountered in small groups are mothers with young or occasional seasonal bounties of rich food (such as salmon runs)