Yes, we have bears in Florida! The Florida black bear is:
a unique subspecies of the American black bear
listed as a threatened species by the state of Florida
the state's largest land mammal
Black bears once ranged throughout Florida but now live in several fragmented areas across the state.
Black bears occupied all of the Florida mainland, including some coastal islands and larger keys before settlement by the early Europeans.
The occupied range has been reduced to 6 core areas (Eglin, Apalachicola, Osceola, Ocala, St. Johns, and Big Cypress) and 2 remnant areas (Chassahowitzka and Glades/Highlands).
Bears can be found anywhere in Florida. However, we have documented certain areas that have high bear densities. These regions, or populations, are listed below.
The bear distribution map includes primary (green) and secondary (brown) black bear ranges. The area they inhabit in search of food, water, and adequate cover is called a home range.
While the Florida black bear has genetic and skeletal characteristics that distinguish them from other subspecies, physically they do not appear very different from other black bears.
- A primary bear range is defined as an area that contains a core bear population, habitat that is important to bear movement, and evidence of reproduction.
- A secondary bear range is defined as an area important to bear movement and habitat use, but less optimal than a primary range.
Black bears originated in North America, and have been here at least 1.5 million years.
What Do Black Bears Have in Common With All Bears?
Like all members of the bear family, black bears are large, powerful mammals with rounded ears, short tails, 5-toed feet, and large canine teeth.
Black bears walk flat-footed, just like people, with all 5 toes on the ground. While they may look slow because of their shuffling gait, black bears can sprint at up to 35 miles an hour! With their stout, heavily-curved claws, black bears climb trees very well. These claws are non-retractable and can be easily seen in their tracks.
Although black bears in western states may have several color phases, all black bears in the Southeast, including Florida black bears, are black. The muzzle may be tan or nearly black, and some bears have blonde or white "blazes" on their chests in different shapes and sizes.
"Sizing" up the Black Bear
Bears are "sexually dimorphic," which means that adult males are larger than adult females. However, because young, smaller males are similar in size to adult females, it is difficult to determine the sex of a bear by their size alone.
Average weights for adult bears in Florida range from 250 to 450 pounds for males and 125 to 250 pounds for females.
Florida Size Records
There have been two male bears that set a record for the state in excess of six hundred pounds. One was a 635 lb bear found in 1945 in Volusia County. The other was a 624 lb, eight year old male killed by a car in December 1988 in Collier County.
The record weight for a female bear is 400 pounds, found on the side of a road in January 2007 in Liberty County.
Bears that habitually feed on human-supplied foods such as garbage and wildlife feed or pet food can become abnormally large because of the high number of calories found in these food sources.
This is not a mother and cub! They are adult bears; a male on the left and female on the right. Note the significant difference in size!
The weight of individual black bears varies greatly throughout the year.
Food availability is low during the winter months, even in Florida, and both male and female bears lose weight. Bears can lose up to 25% of their body weight while they keep to their den in winter. It is not until plants grow in the spring that bears begin to gain weight again.
During the summer breeding season, males spend most of their time searching for mates, while females spend most of their time foraging.
Watch those Ears
Most people find it hard to estimate the size of a bear that they have seen in the wild. One good method is to pay attention to the relative size of their ears.
Because the ears of black bears reach full length when they are juveniles, small, skinny yearlings appear to have very long "Mickey-mouse" ears on slender faces, while large males seem to have very small, rounded ears on wide, round heads.
Also, adult males tend to have wide, wedge shaped faces, while females' faces are more slender in appearance.
As the summer breeding season ends and the fall foraging begins, both sexes concentrate of foraging up to 18 hours a day. Normally, bears consume 5,000 calories a day, but in the fall, it jumps to 20,000 calories per day. Bears can gain up to 1-1/2 times their summer weight in the fall. The official term for this fall feeding frenzy is called "hyperphagia."
Male bears may stay active and search for food during the winter months. Typically, however, the foods they eat during the summer and fall should allow bears to survive the lean winter season.
What Does a Black Bear Eat?
Bears are called omnivores because they eat both plant and animals. A Florida black bear's diet varies, but usually consists of 80% plants, 15% insects, and 5% animal matter.
Black bears eat mainly acorns, nuts, berries, and other vegetation as well as insects. Only a small percentage of their diet is meat, which is mostly obtained from scavenging. FWC has compiled an extensive list of natural food items that Florida bears are known to eat.
The black bear diet varies seasonally and yearly depending on fluctuations in plant productivity but it is also based on geographic variation from one region of Florida to the next. For example, saw palmetto berries are a high portion of bear diets in the Osceola population, but insignificant in the Apalachicola population where the berries are not readily available. For more information on each region's population, please refer back to the distribution map (under "Appearance").
A bear is always looking for food, and is not very particular as to what foods they will eat. In addition, the bear can smell foods up to a mile away. A bear's search for food is the primary cause of conflicts with people. Bears are often attracted to smells of garbage, beeyards, pet foods, barbeque grills, wildlife feeders, and other temptations bring them closer to human homes, which can result in property damage and safety concerns for both people and bears.
It is important to know how to keep our Florida bears wild and away from your home. For more information, please visit Living With Bears.
Black Bear Behavior
Bears are solitary by nature, except when in family groups of mothers and cubs or in pairs during the mating season.
Bears may congregate in areas of high food density, such as oak stands, berry patches, or farm fields. When rich food sources are found across large areas, bears tend to tolerate each other more than usual.
While bears may defend a food resource or mate while they are present, bears are not territorial. They do not patrol or defend a specific area from intrusion by other bears. Bears respect a certain personal space, but often several animals overlap each other's living space at different times. A bear's living space that provides food, water, and adequate cover is called a "home range."
The size of a home range may vary each season and year depending on food availability, the bear's sex or age, the reproductive status of the bear, and even the density of the area's bear population. During major droughts and famine, bears will range much further than normal to search of food.
In Florida, average annual adult home ranges for bears are 50 to 120 square miles for males, and 10 to 25 square miles for females.
Bears have the ability to navigate homeward from unfamiliar areas, which often brings them across dangerous roads. Learn more at our bears and roads page.
Black Bear Senses
Vision: Black bears have color vision and good eyesight, equal to humans.
Hearing: They have acute hearing and often hear humans before we see them. Because of this, black bears will often move away before they are noticed.
Smell: A bear's strongest sense is smell. They can pick up a scent from over a mile away! Their rumored poor vision may be due to their reliance on their sense of smell.
Black Bear Behavior
Bears respond to people as they would other bears. Understanding the various responses and ways bears communicate can help people to coexist with bears.
Bears are relatively quiet creatures, but will occasionally make sounds to communicate:
Cubs bawl and moan when distressed, and make a grunting purr sound when suckling.
Females communicate with their young by grunts or moans to send their cubs up trees for safety, or have them follow her.
A bear that feels threatened does not roar or growl. They may slap the ground, "huff" or blow air forcefully through their nose or mouth, and snap or "pop" their teeth together. If these behaviors don't scare off the source of their unease, the bear may bluff charge, running toward the source and then veer away.
A bear that is tr
uly aggressive toward humans does not make a sound. Instead, they will stare, protrude their lower lip, and flatten their ears.
Black bear are curious animals. They often do a lot of sniffing, and may stand up on hind legs to get a better view and smell their surroundings. This is normal behavior and is not a sign of aggression.
Some black bears rub, bite and claw marks onto trees between 5 and 7 feet high. Marks often occur along defined game trails, with the mark facing the trail. We are not sure why bears mark tress, but here are some of the theories to explain this behavior:
The marks are related to male dominance hierarchies.
Marks communicate breeding status to ensure males and females are synchronized successfully for breeding.
Marking home range boundaries among females may mimic territorial behavior.
Marks may serve to help orient bears in new or little used areas, as markings increase when a bear enters a new area.
Do Black Bears Hibernate?
Black bears are not true hibernators. Instead, they experience what is often called "winter lethargy" or "denning."
This period of reduced activity occurs in all black bear populations. Winter lethargy is brought on by many factors, including reproductive status, food availability, amount of daylight, and temperature change.
However, it is notable that bears in southern states den for shorter periods and sleep less deeply than bears in colder climates. While denned bears in northern states are very lethargic and less responsive to people, bears in the South readily run away when people come close to their den. In addition, male bears in southern states like Florida may have a reduced denning period or none at all.
What Makes a Den?
In Florida, males and females that are not pregnant may den in dense vegetation for only a few weeks or a month.
Pregnant females will den for the entire winter. Because their cubs will be born in the den, they often select more protected sites than other bears. Dens are commonly made on the ground in 'nests' in dense thickets, but have also been found in tree cavities and under blow-downs or fallen logs.
Breeding and Reproduction
The breeding season for black bears runs from June to July. Bears have a unique breeding adaptation that is called "delayed implantation." The egg is fertilized in the summer but does not implant in the uterine wall until November or early December. If the mother is in poor condition, the fertilized egg may be reabsorbed, the fetus will not continue to develop, or the female will miscarry. A female in better condition will have a larger litter of cubs. This adaptation to periodic food shortages prevents the female from producing more offspring than she can handle.
The Bear Cub
The fertilized egg grows in the mother for about 8-12 weeks. Bear cubs are very small at birth, only 8 - 15 ounces (225 - 450 grams), about the size of a small squirrel.
At birth, bear cubs have a very fine coat of hair and their eyes are closed. The average litter size in Florida is 2 to 3 cubs, but litters can range from 1 to 4.
The cubs nurse in the den until spring. They stay with their mother for a year and a half, and will almost always den with her the following winter.
Cubs stay with their mother for a year and a half, and will usually/almost always den with her the following winter.
Bear cubs stay with their mother until the summer of their second year, so young bears may be called either "cubs of the year" or "dependent yearlings" when they are still with their mother, depending on their age and size.
During their second summer, the family group divides. The juveniles wander off and the adult female is ready to breed again. Female yearlings will likely establish a home range that is near or overlapping their mothers, while male yearlings are forced to find new areas well away from their mother's home range.
What's In an Age?
Unlike most animals, we can tell exactly how old bears are. Bears can be aged by removing a sectioning a small premolar tooth near their canine teeth. Just like a tree has growth rings for each year of life, rings show up in the cross section of the tooth. Because bears den each year, there is a period of time where lack of food creates ring. Over the years, enamel coats each ring so that when you look at a section of bear tooth under a scope, you see a ring for each year the bear has been alive.
While we can tell the age of individual bears, determining the average life-span for wild black bears is very difficult. Many bear die in the wild that are not examined and aged by biologists. We can only report on the ages of bears we have documented over the years.
The 2 oldest known bears from Florida were 20 years old (killed in 1985 during a legal bear hunt held on Apalachicola Wildlife Management Area) and 19 years old (captured in 2004 as part of a University of Kentucky Glades/Highland Bear Population Study). Both bears were females. The oldest known male, from the Ocala population, was killed by a vehicle at age 16. The oldest known wild black bear was found in upstate New York and was 32 years old.
In captivity, black bears have been known to live into their 30's. Because adult black bears have no predators aside humans and other bears, they tend to live longer than most other wild animals.
In Florida, the most frequent known cause of death for black bears are collisions with vehicles. In an average year, over 130 bears are killed on roads in Florida.
Life Expectancy and Mortality
Cubs: Approximately 25-50% of all cubs die before they are one year old. Natural causes of death include drowning, den cave-ins, hypothermia due to flooded dens, starvation, or infections from injuries.
Two of the biggest threats are other bears (who see the cubs as an easy meal) and being hit by vehicles.
Juveniles: Yearlings will establish their own home range once they leave from their mother. Yearlings are susceptible to high mortality rates as a result of starvation, predation by other bears, and vehicle collisions. About a quarter will die before they turn two years old.
Young, independent females usually establish a home range close to their mother. About 20% die before reaching adulthood (about 4 years old).
Juvenile males travel farther in search of a new home range. The traveling needed to forage and find mates in new areas increases mortality risks, and approximately 46% of males will die before reaching adulthood.
Adults: Once fully grown, black bears have no predators besides humans and other bears. Main causes of mortality are vehicle collisions, starvation, and poaching.
The legal bear hunting season was reduced to a few, scattered areas of Florida in 1974, when the bear was listed as a threatened species by the state. Hunting was closed statewide in 1994. A timeline is available to view, including hunting regulations and other state management activities regarding the Florida Black Bear.
Disease and Parasites:
Little information is available on the diseases and parasites of wild black bears. Research shows that, while bears host external parasites (ticks and mites) and several types of internal parasites (helminths, nematodes, trematodes, and acanthocephalams); they are not believed to cause any significant health problems to bears. Bears have been documented to carry mange, however, it is not prevalent or believed to be a significant cause of mortality.