Introduction & Teacher Background
Probably no other animal excites a primary grade student like a bear. From the teddy bear to the scary bear, children's sense of wonder is engaged at a very high level. This is a fortuitous situation for teachers in the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem (COCE), because we are lucky enough to have both the black bear and the grizzly bear right here. The center of the endangered grizzly bear population is in Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Why three bears? Students in the primary grades are learning the primary investigative skills of a scientist-careful observation, comparison, and communication. Even though polar bears are not native to the COCE, their presence in the unit gives students an opportunity to compare the bears, compare their habitats, and realize the differences between native and non-native species.
In W-GIPP, black bears, which are also brown and golden-colored, live primarily in the dense forest. Grizzlies prefer open areas of alpine tundra, avalanche chutes and the prairies of the eastern front. Black bears have short, curved claws which they use for climbing trees. Grizzlies have very long claws used primarily for digging up roots and ground dwelling animals. The "hump" on the backs of grizzlies is a strong set of shoulder muscles used for all of the digging.
Grizzly males average 400 pounds and can reach 700 pounds or more. Black bear males average 275 pounds, but have reached nearly 600 pounds in rare cases. Females of both species average about two-thirds the size of males.
Bears are omnivores -they eat both plants and meat- but mostly plants, because plants are more dependable as a food source. Over 90% of the food of both species is vegetable, and a good share of the animal food is insects and small mammals.
Polar bears, by contrast, are carnivores because they live where vegetable food is not usually found. The males can weigh 1600 pounds and stretch 11 feet long. They are the largest meat-eater living on land. They are excellent swimmers and divers and can swim for 8-10 hours without resting! This is an essential skill for their life on the pack ice. Polar bears paddle only with their front feet when they swim.
Polar bears have some other important differences from the other bears. They are creamy-white, to blend in with snow. Only the females who bear cubs will hibernate-other females and males don't. Male polar bears are three times larger than females (instead of 1 1/2 times as big). Polar bear cubs stay with their mother for 3 years instead of 2, probably because learning to hunt is harder than learning to gather plants, like the black and grizzly cubs do. A great resource available to local teachers for this unit is the Glacier bear trunk. There are also basic safety information about grizzly and black bears and how to camp and travel in bear country.