How To Tell The Difference Between a Black Bear and a Brown Bear

by Jon D. B.

Join the author of our National Parks Journal series as Outsider breaks down the difference between America’s black bear and brown bear species.

One of the most storied and iconic of all animals, we humans hold our distant mammalian cousins in high esteem. Who doesn’t love a good bear tale? There are untold thousands, and herein lies both the blessing and the curse: there are so many bear stories and so much bear information out there that it can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

This becomes particularly tricky for us North American Outsiders who share the continent with three iconic ursine families: brown, black, and polar bears. It’s the former two, however, that can be readily mistaken for one another.

Photos: Getty Images archives, Outsider

It’s no trivial matter, either. Learning how to tell the difference between our continent’s black bear and brown bear species far-better prepares any outdoors-folk for possible encounters. It can even save your life in a survival scenario. Proper identification is crucial for hunting and conservation, too, as every year hunters harvest the wrong species when hunting the other. A great heap of North America is bear country, after all. We just live in it.

And never let anyone make you feel foolish or consider this an “easy” question. Even the most seasoned of wildlife technicians and biologists can come across a bear that makes them question everything they thought they knew. Black bears can be brown in color. Brown bears can sport a black coat, too. Such is the way of nature; illustrated perfectly by a few prime “wait, is that a black or brown bear?” photos below.

But first, let’s break down how to properly identify black and brown bears (which include grizzly bears) with the tips our great National Park Service favors.

Key Physical Differences Between American Black & Brown Bears

When it comes to knowing the difference between black and brown bears, there are six key identifiers Outsiders should know. The first four – shoulder size/hump, face shape, ear shape, and rump height – can be useful from a distance.

  • Shoulder Hump: Brown bears need exceptional shoulders to survive. This musculature results in a distinct, pronounced shoulder hump that black bears do not have. Typically, this hump is highly discernable from the side profile (see above) when the brown bear is on all fours. In turn, when a black bear is on all fours, the highest point on their back will be just before the pelvic region slumps off into their rump.
  • Face Shape: Much of a bear’s face shape is determined by their fur. But a typical brown/grizzly bear will sport a pronounced concave between the eyes and the muzzle. Black bears, however, typically have a much straighter line from the brow to the tip of their muzzle/nose. Brown bears have broader muzzles, too, and their eyes will sit closer together on the front of the face and appear deeper set. In turn, the shorter, flatter hair of black bears gives their faces a much more dog-like appearance than browns.
  • Ear Size: In proportion to their overall head size, brown bears will have smaller, rounder, and fluffier ears than black bears. Typically, black bear ears appear longer, stiffer, and larger in comparison to the face. This changes drastically, however, if a brown bear is wet. As anyone who studies bears will tell you, once a brown bear is wet, distinguishing them from a black bear becomes far more difficult.
  • Rump Height: When on all fours, a black bear’s rump will almost always be the highest peak point on the bear. For a brown/grizzly, however, the rump will slope down and be lower than their signature burly shoulders.

Keep these four identifiers tucked away, and you’ll be in good shape to differentiate the two species.

It’s In the Paws, Too: Claw Size & Paw Print Shape

From a distance and/or in most scenarios, looking for that signature shoulder-to-rump shape (and not just pronounced shoulders) will be the best way to spot a brown bear over a black. But if a bear is too close for comfort – or nowhere to be seen – there are two other ways to tell the difference between a brown and black bear.

  • The Claws: Brown bears have far larger/longer claws than black bears that are more lightly colored. A brown bear’s claws can be longer than the fingers of a full-grown man, measuring up to a whopping 18 centimeters (or over 7 inches long), and are prime digging and defensive tools. Black bears, however, will sport much shorter, darker, and sharper claws that measure around 4 cm (2 inches or less) and are adept for climbing trees.
  • The Paws: If you come across a paw print and want to know what bear is in the area, look for their front paw prints that are rounder and less “foot-like” in shape. Placing a straight-edge underneath each of the five toes will determine whether it belongs to a brown or black bear. If each toe remains above the straight-edge, the print belongs to a brown bear. If the smallest, most outward toe print falls below the straight-edge, the print belongs to a black bear. This is illustrated in our visual breakdown above.

Each of these five factors has their pros and cons, of course – like getting close enough to a bear to examine their claws, for example (never, ever approach a wild bear of any species). But looking for a combination of these identifiers goes a long way in knowing which bear you’re looking at.

More important, however, is knowing what not to rely on when trying to tell the difference between a brown and black bear.

What NOT to Look For: Color & Size

Take a look at the two bears below. Would you know which is which species at first glance? Each photo illustrates perfectly why their names and corresponding colors should never be used to identify either species. And while many consider black bears to be “smaller” and brown bears “larger,” this isn’t always the case, either.

  • Color: Never try to distinguish American black and brown bears by the colors in their names. Many black bears have cinnamon and brown coats, giving them a striking resemblance to their larger cousins. Brown bears can be black, too, and even their true brown coats can shine black when wet.
  • Size: Size is an inconsistent factor for both species, too. Young brown bears are similar in size to black bears, and large black bears can approach browns in size. Some ecosystems harbor 800-pound black bears, which encroaches well into the brown bear’s weight class, etc.

In the case of black bears, the majority are black, this is true. Especially in areas like Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM), where any other coloration is a true rarity, as lead wildlife biologist Bill Stiver cites. But elsewhere, even in ecosystems black bears share with brown bears (like Yellowstone National Park), black bears can have cinnamon, dark brown, true brown, and even white “spirit” coats.

Likewise, brown and grizzly bears also range in color. Brown bears can be black, dark brown, true brown, and blonde. Their coats are, however, typically longer and more “grizzled” than black bears.

For Brown and Black Bears, Looks Can Be Deceiving. So Can Size.

As for size, the brown bears are a far larger species of bear, this is true. But only in their average builds when compared to black bears. This becomes particularly tricky where sexual dimorphism (size difference between males and females of a species) is prevalent.

For example: an adult sow (female) grizzly typically weights around 250-350 pounds. This is the same weight range for a typical adult black bear. Their heights are also near identical, with both standing at about 3-to-3.5 feet at their shoulders.

In extreme circumstances, adult boar (male) black bears can weigh between 600-800 pounds, too, which is well into the upper echelon of the brown bear’s weight class. Imagine seeing a cinnamon-colored black bear weighing 700-pounds and convincing yourself with any immediacy that it is not, in fact, a grizzly. Or, what if you spot the black-colored grizzly above from a distance and think you have a less-territorial black bear on your hands?

Looking at the photos above, one last tip from the National Park Service comes into play: rump height. When on all fours, a black bear’s rump will almost always be their highest peak point over the shoulders. For a brown/grizzly, however, the rump will slope down and be lower than their signature burly shoulders.

Habitat: Where You’ll Find Both Bear Species Together

Thankfully, there is one great way to immediately tell a brown from a black bear if you’re in the right area. If you’re in California, you’ll only ever see black bears – despite the presence of the (extinct) California grizzly bear on the state flag.

If you’re in Tennessee and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM), you’re never going to see anything but a black bear, either. The same can be said for the rest of the East Coast all the way up to New England and all the way down to Florida. You’ll find black bears there, but never a brown.

Alaska and the Greater Yellowstone area (including Yellowstone National Park), however, host U.S. overlap for both species. Much of far Western Canada does, too, as does Glacier National Park. Both species typically do not inhabit the same areas of their ecosystems, but on the rare chance they cross paths – sparks can fly – as this incredible Glacier National Park (GNP) footage shows.

As for the (non-physical) differences between brown bears and grizzly bears, please see our National Parks Journal: Katmai Ranger Cheryl Spencer Explains the Difference Between Brown and Grizzly Bears next.