5 Bear Myths Debunked

Throughout this season of The Savage Line, the animal guards have showcased their limited non-lethal options in dealing with bears that threaten human populations. Killing these predators is oftentimes illegal, unwise or unethical, so the guards leaned on their professional knowledge of animal behavior to find ways to discourage the bears from entering settlements.

Scientific knowledge of different species is key to avoiding brutishness and disrupting wild habitats, and can also be the key to the guards’ survival. While the animal guards understand that folk knowledge is only helpful when it’s solidly supported by science, those with less experience put themselves at great risk when they can’t parse fact from fiction.

Particularly within the scientific community, there’s no question that the internet can give a platform to those perpetuating sensational half-truths, misinformation and folk-science. In the interest of ensuring that these myths are put to rest, we’ve collected the most pervasive, bizarre false bear myths, according to the internet:

Myth 1: It’s dangerous to be around bears while menstruating

Unlike some of the others on this list, this myth can be traced to a single point of origin. According to the Huffington Post, the idea first began to circulate in response to a 1967 grizzly bear attack which killed two women in Glacier National Park. At the time, some members of the media speculated that the deaths were due to menstrual odors that attracted bears.

This went scientifically unchallenged for years. S0 in 2012, the National Park Service released a paper citing evidence that this myth was very, very untrue. Findings were primarily based on a 1991 study of wild black bears which showed that they were not attracted to menstural odors in a single tested case. In another study cited, actual grizzly bear attacks were examined for links to menstruation – none were found. In an extremely limited study, scientists found that polar bears have different, sometimes more animated reactions to menstrual blood odor, but the sample size was too small not to rule out other influences.

Myth 2: Bear can’t see very well

This one is similar to the menstrual myth in that it attempts to explain bears’ senses using an unscientific argument. According to Bear Smart, an advocacy group which seeks to mitigate the negative interactions of humans and bears, some believe that bears must have developed a strong sense of smell to compensate for weaknesses of other sense such as sight. This is not the case: bears eyes’ possess a reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum, which stimulate light-sensitive cells in low-light settings.

Myth 3: Bear Charging

There are all kinds of “advice-myths” about bear charges and bear aggressiveness.

One of the most pervasive myths is the “downhill trick,” which posits that one can escape a bear attack by simply running downhill. This advice was based on a pseudo-scientific assumption that because bears have shorter front legs than back legs, they will somehow be dissuaded from following prey down a slope. This, of course, is not true: bears can run just as fast downhill as they do uphill, and won’t hesitate to. This myth is monumentally stupid because it seems to defy evolutionary logic – would a predator really be at the top of the food chain if it could only chase and attack on level ground or going uphill.

Another is the “hind-legs threat,” which claims that when a bear is on its hind legs, it’s preparing to charge. Like many other species, bears get onto their hind legs simply to get a better view of whatever may be interesting them. If a bear is preparing to charge, it will be on all fours, and have its head down.

Finally, another piece of this myth is that movements that indicate your presence are all signs that a bear is about to charge. Many bears will “bluff charge,” running at a potential threat, and veering off course at the last second once the target is thoroughly spooked. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service,  bluff charges usually occur “with a hopping or bouncing motion, with the bear’s head up, legs stiff, and ears forward.”

bear cub treeMyth 4: Tree climbing

This is a particularly bad one, mostly because it can be exactly the opposite of what you should do. Say you’ve triggered the charge instinct. Black bears spend a lot of time in trees – their first instinct when threatened is to retreat, and often climb trees and send them cubs climbing up trees when threatened by other predators such as wolves, grizzles or rival black bears. Black bears have claws that have specifically evolved to climb trees, and even if you have enough speed to get into a tree, there’s absolutely nothing stopping that black bear from climbing up there with you. Not only is that bear a faster runner than you, it’s also a better climber.

Now, because grizzly bears evolved in coastal and mountain forests without dense tree canopies, they do not climb nearly as well, and more often than black bears use their size as an offensive strategy when threatened. So perhaps with a grizzly you’d have a slightly better chance once you’re in the tree, but grizzlies can also climb when they need to.

Myth 5: Bears hibernate through the winter/bears aren’t “true” hibernators.

There are competing ideas about the purity of bears’ hibernation tendencies. But truly understanding bears extending sleeping patterns is mostly based on how you define hibernation.

First, it’s key to note that most of the hibernating bear species live in the upper regions of the northern hemisphere. This is because there’s no lack of food sources in the more southern regions, and the bears can feast year-round. Of the bears that do hibernate, some males skip hibernation for the same reasons.

Then there’s the myth of “true hibernators,” or the idea that because bears can be awoken from hibernation, they aren’t as pure as those species who deliberately inhibit key functions during the winter that keep them from waking up accidentally. But this neglects some key facts which, according to Slate, show that bears actually have much more efficient hibernation systems than these organisms. Many small hibernators have to wake during the winter to eat, drink and stretch their muscles, while hibernating bears can forgo these processes for six months. Bears can also naturally recycle their waste, lower their heartbeat and break up their period of hibernation.