Black and grizzly bears are omnivores, even though they belong to the Carnivora order. They eat both meat and plants, although plants and berries are the main component of their diet.
However, panda bears are strictly herbivores and polar bears are almost entirely carnivores.
The bears’ digestive systems are similar to those of other carnivores, except for their elongated digestive tract, making it easier for bears to digest vegetation like plants, roots, and berries efficiently.
A bear’s diet can change to adapt to the weather or habitat it’s in. For example, when bears leave their dens in the spring post hibernation, it’s not uncommon for them to exist on a diet of available berries and winter-killed carrion like moose, deer, or fish.
So, the amount of meat they eat really changes depending on the seasons as well. Generally, they eat more plants, herbs and berries than meat.
Summary Table: Are Bears Carnivores, Herbivores, or Omnivores?
|Type of Bear||Classification||Common Diet|
|Black Bears||Omnivore||Berries, Herbs, Seeds, Nuts, Carrion Meat, Fish, Ungulates (deer, moose)|
|Polar Bears||Carnivore||Seals, Whale Carcass, Bird Eggs|
|Brown Bears||Omnivore||Fish, Berries, Herbs, Seeds, Nuts, Carrion Meat, Ungulates (deer, moose).|
|Grizzly Bears||Omnivore||Berries, Herbs, Seeds, Nuts, Carrion Meat, Fish, Ungulates (deer, moose).|
Why Is It Difficult to Classify Bears as Strict Carnivores or Herbivores?
There are eight distinct species of bears in total, and they populate different parts of the world. Animal experts tend to classify bears as omnivores because, on the whole, a bear’s diet is approximately 70 to 80 percent plant-based.
Bears need protein, which they get from meat consumption. Their overall intake also needs to include animal fats to ensure optimal energy levels, weight levels, and fertility.
That means, at times, bears will consume meat – which is generally the prime source of protein in the wild.
People are mostly confused about pinning down bears as strict carnivores and herbivores because their diets also change according to the food source available locally and seasonally.
For example, it’s not uncommon for black bears to switch from eating large amounts of insects, roots, and berries to gorging on fish or carrion around fall.
That’s because, during the fall months, black bears enter a phase of hyperphagia as their bodies start gearing up for hibernation. That and a lack of plant-based food sources pushes them to eat meat in the form of fish and animals like moose claves, elk, etc.
Conversely, bears like the sloth bear that live in warmer climates and have no need for hibernation (due to a steady supply of food all year-round) rely more on fruits, vegetables, and insects.
Are All Bears Omnivores?
Before answering if all bears qualify as omnivores, let’s take a moment to discover the different species of bears worldwide.
Bears are native to four out of seven continents, including North and South America, Asia, and Europe. The eight bear species (and sub-species) found in these parts are:
- North American black bears
- Polar bears
- Giant Pandas
- Brown bears
- Spectacled bears
- Sun bears
- Asiatic black bears
Only two of the eight bear species – Giant pandas and Polar bears – are referred to as strict herbivores or carnivores. Here’s why.
Are Panda Bears Herbivores?
Giant pandas are native to the forests in the mountains of southwest China and subsist almost entirely on a diet of bamboo. So, they’re considered strict herbivores.
That’s a little difficult to believe because of how huge these animals can grow, but it’s true nonetheless.
Scientists believe that the ancestors of pandas were omnivorous, like most other bear species.
However, pandas switched to a bamboo-intensive diet over the years because the woody grass is abundant in the area they inhabit. More importantly, they didn’t have to fight anyone over the food source.
That’s also why panda physiology seems to have altered over time to include jaws and teeth that are more suited to crushing and chewing bamboo. Another fascinating change was the elongation of the species’ wrist bone to help them grasp bamboo stalks.
Researchers have also discovered that pandas are drawn to eating bamboos because of their protein content. So, in a way, they’re pretty similar to their other bear cousins.
The only difference is that pandas adapted their diet to include a food source that offers the proteins they need without hunting or scavenging for meat.
The only downside is that bamboo is pretty high in fiber content too. That means pandas have to eat around 40 pounds of the stuff to ensure they’re getting all the nutrients they need. That’s why pandas qualify as the only bear species that are strict herbivores.
Are Polar Bears Carnivores?
As the name suggests, Polar bears are native to the Arctic Circle of the North Pole. They’re common in parts of Russia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Norway.
Polar bears are classified as carnivores because their diet consists almost entirely of ringed or bearded seals.
Remember, bears are great at adapting their diet according to their habitat.
And, since vegetation or a plant-based diet isn’t something that’s easily found in the freezing regions they inhabit – polar bears get by on the fat and protein derived from their prey. The digestive system of a polar bear acquires 97% of the fat and 84% of the protein it needs from this diet.
That’s also why polar bears will often frequent areas of sea ice near open waters, where they have higher chances of running into their food source – the seals.
Over the years, polar bears have also evolved into becoming excellent swimmers, but they can still drown if a long storm hits while they’re hunting for prey.
Polar bears are also known to eat whale carcasses or walruses when seals are scare. They can also survive on seal pups and bird eggs.
Why Are Some Bears Herbivores or Carnivores While Others Are Omnivores?
Aside from the fact that a bear’s diet depends on its habitat, another crucial factor that affects what bears eat is their own physiology.
For instance, brown bears are pretty famous for feasting on fish. And in large part, their long and sharp claws are what help them catch fast-moving salmons from streams and rivers.
Polar bears have shorter and sharper claws that are thick and curved to help grip slippery seals better. And, giant pandas have longer and stronger wrist bones that aids in grasping bamboo stalks.
The point is, evolution and development also play quite a significant role in how bears hunt and what they eat.
Bears are fascinating animals for several reasons. They inhabit different parts of the world and have varying diets based on the food sources available. Whether bears are omnivores, carnivores, or herbivores can also depend on their nutritional needs and physical attributes.
Nonetheless, a large variety of species extensively survive on a plant-based diet, along with some meat sources. Only two species of the bear family come close to being strict herbivores and carnivores, such as pandas and polar bears.