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The Incredible Senses of the Bear

Author: Lisa Jeeves
by Lisa Jeeves
Posted: Oct 20, 2015

A dedicated bear watching tour is the perfect opportunity to observe one of the world's most majestic animals in its natural habitat. Along the way, with the help of an experienced wildlife guide, a bear watching tour will help you learn a host of new things about this often-misunderstood animal. For example, these amazing animals are endowed with some of the keenest senses in the animal kingdom.

Smell

Bears are thought to have the keenest sense of smell of all animals: seven times better than a bloodhound and over 2,000 times better than a human. They rely on their sense of smell to locate mates, detect danger, identify cubs, and, most importantly, to find food. Grizzly Bears can track a scent from 18 miles away, and Polar Bears are able to smell a seal a mile away under three feet of snow and ice.

This amazing sense of smell is attributable to the size of the animal's nasal muscosa, which is a type of tissue that lines the inside of the nose. In a bear the area is about 100 times greater than in a human, and this huge capacity allows them to pick up even the faintest scents.

With such incredible range at their disposal, it’s important to keep the bear’s keen sense of smell in mind while on a bear watching tour. Any food you have with you will be detectable, and bears have been known to break into cars and overturn rubbish bins to reach the source of an appealing smell - so never leave food lying around.

Eyesight

There’s a common myth that bears have very poor eyesight and rely instead on their amazing sense of smell. While it's true their sense of smell is far better than their eyesight, they can actually see quite well. Polar Bears have the best eyesight, with special adaptations that allow them to see underwater and filter out snow glare from their Arctic habitat.

In daylight, bears can see about as well as humans can, but in darkness they far surpass us. This is because they have a reflective layer, the tapetum lucidum, lining the back of the eyeball. This layer, which is found in the eyes of most animals that are primarily nocturnal, reflects light back through the retina, allowing it to stimulate the rods a second time, thus improving vision in the dark. If you’ve ever seen an animal's eyes appear to glow at night, what you are seeing is the light reflecting off the tapetum lucidum.

A bear’s eyes are quite small, positioned towards the front of the head, and have a narrow point of focus (rather like our own) because they are optimised for hunting prey. It takes two eyes working at once to obtain correct depth perception, which is extremely important for a hunter. A prey species like the deer, on the other hand, has large eyes positioned closer to the sides of the head, so that they can detect sudden movements around them from a predator about to pounce. The depth perception of a deer will not be as good as that of a bear, but the deer is much better at picking up small movements of the animals that would make it dinner.

If you’re interested in observing the amazing senses of this fascinating animal, one of the specialised bear watching wildlife tours will take you in their natural habitat so you can experience it for yourself.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer. If you’re looking for bear watching holidays, Naturetrek specialises in expert-led natural history and wildlife tours worldwide. Naturetrek brings over 25 years of experience to polar expeditions and tours to other spectacular regions on Earth.

About the Author

Writer and Online Marketing Manager in London.

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Author: Lisa Jeeves

Lisa Jeeves

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