Brown Bears vs. Grizzly Bears

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

You've heard of brown bears, but have you heard of grizzly bears? Or Kodiak bears? So many names for the same species! This lesson will break down the reasons for the numerous names.

Brown Bears: An Introduction

What do you call a sweet carbonated beverage? Soda? Coke? Pop? The name varies depending on where you live. For example, carbonated beverages in California are called soda; in Montana, they are called pop; and in Louisiana, they are called coke.

Now, what do you call the bears in this image?

What are these bears called?

Brown bear? Grizzly Bear? Kodiak Bear? Like the carbonated beverage, these bears have different names depending on where you find them. Of course, it's a little more complicated.

Brown bears, grizzly bears, and Kodiak bears are all the same species: Ursus arctos. Whoever named them apparently wanted there to be no doubt that they were naming a bear, as 'ursus' is Latin for bear and 'arctos' comes from a Greek word that means bear. So, their scientific name literally means 'bear bear' (although some people argue that 'arctos' means Arctic and the bears are named 'arctic bears'). Either way, we know we are dealing with a bear!

If they are all the same species, why the different names? As mentioned a moment ago, like soda, pop, and coke, the bears are given different names based on where they live. Unlike soda, pop and coke, there are subtle differences between the three types of Ursus arctos living in North America.

Brown Bears

Grizzly bears and Kodiak bears are both brown bears. The name 'brown bear' is like the name 'carbonated beverages' and is the general name given to members of Ursus arctos.

However, (to make life confusing) brown bear is also the name given to members of this species who live along the coast. Typically, these coastal bears have access to high-quality foods, such as salmon, and clams, which allows them to grow bigger.

Kodiak Bears

Kodiak Bears are brown bears that are isolated on several islands in southern Alaska. They get their common name (Kodiak) from one one of the islands. On these islands, they receive a quality diet that has allowed them to become the largest brown bears on the planet. Males can weigh 1,500 pounds and stand 10 feet tall.

These giant bears are a sub-species of the brown bear. Sub-species is a taxonomic grouping that comes after species and usually occurs when some members of a species get separated from the main group. In this case, the brown bears living on these islands were separated from the other brown bears around 12,000 years ago. The sub-species gets an additional name, so Kodiak bears are called Ursus arctos middendorffi.

Kodiak island is circled
kodiak island

Because food is so plentiful, these bears can live in high densities in a small area compared to grizzly bears. For example, there are around 3,500 Kodiak bears, which is about 0.7 bears for every square mile (wow, I'd hate to see 0.7 of bear).

Eating high protein foods, like salmon, have allowed Kodiak bears to become the largest brown bears
brown bear eating

Grizzly Bears

Grizzly bears are brown bears that live inland (not along the coast). They typically are smaller and do not live in high densities compared the coastal bears because their diet is not as good, and food is less accessible. For example, while coastal bears eat a lot of salmon, grizzly bears eat a variety of foods including blueberries, roots, rodents, and the occasional moose, elk or caribou.

Some scientists refer to grizzly bears as Ursus arctos horribilis to distinguish them from the larger coastal or island bears. And yes, horribilis translates into horrible! There are a few stories on how they acquired this name. One such story is that the person naming them misinterpreted the common name 'grizzly,' which refers to their grizzled looking fur, for 'grisly,' as in disgust or repulsion, and so added the 'horribilis' bit to represent the 'grisly' common name.

You will find grizzly bears (not grisly bears) living in the interior regions of Alaska and Canada as well as a few states in the continental United States like Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

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