All Your Polar Bear Questions, Answered
Polar bears have been around for millions of years, going through a series of evolutionary changes to adapt to the frigid temperatures of the Arctic. Unfortunately, climate change has been altering their habitat, forcing them to leave the melting sea ice in search of food.
These unfortunate changes have led to bears spending more time on the shore, which means increased encounters with humans. Northern communities have quietly coexisted with polar bears for centuries, but the effects of climate change threaten this peaceful coexistence.
So, what is the current status of the polar bear? What exactly do polar bears eat? Where do they live? And do they hibernate? Here's everything you need to know about polar bears.
1. Polar bears do not live in the southern hemisphere.
They're only found in the Arctic areas of the northern hemisphere. The five nations where you can find the largest populations are the U.S., Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland and Norway.
The polar bear habitat range is enormous and depends on two main factors— the quality of the sea ice and the availability of seals — their primary food source.
2. There are approximately 26,000 wild bears currently in existence.
From that number, there are 19 subpopulations, and only one of the subpopulations is increasing.
The rest are either stable, declining or there isn't enough data available yet.
3. They are the only species of bear considered a marine mammal.
This is due to the fact that polar bears spend so much time on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean.
4. Polar bears evolved from brown bears to survive the Arctic.
These evolutionary changes occurred between 350,000 and 6 million years ago.
5. In 2006, genetic testing confirmed the existence of a polar bear-grizzly bear hybrid.
Although the hybrids mostly resemble a mix, the majority are birthed by polar bear mothers and raised similar to that breed.
6. The polar bear is the largest land carnivore in the world.
The average male weighs 990 pounds and is roughly 7.9- to 9.8-feet long. Females average 330 to 550 pounds and are 5.9 to 7.9 feet in length.
However, larger polar bears can weigh 1,700 pounds and measure 11-feet tall when standing on their hind legs.
7. The normal lifespan for a polar bear is 25 years, but some can survive 30.
They don't have natural predators, but they can be killed by other polar bears and humans.
In addition, native Arctic populations will hunt the bears for food, clothing, handicrafts and for the sale of their skins.
8. Adult polar bears can run as fast as 25 miles per hour.
What? That seems crazy to us, but they can do this because their padded feet grip the icy surface as they sprint.
9. There are many names for the polar bear used by people of different cultures.
Some of those names include "Sea Bear," "Ice Bear," "Nanuq," "The Rider of the Icebergs," "The Seal's Dread," "White Sea Deer," "The Sailor of the Floe," "The Whale's Bone, " "White Bear," "Lord of the Arctic" and "Old Man in the Fur Coat."
You know, just a few.
10. The physique of the polar bear is designed to keep them warm in the Arctic.
They have dense fur that insulates them from colder temperatures. The "guard hair" in the coat varies in length and prevents heat loss.
Also, the polar bear's skin covers a thick layer of fat that measures roughly 4.49 inches. With their short ears and tails, they can conserve additional heat.
11. Polar bears actually have black skin and translucent (not white) fur with pigment-free hair shafts.
However, the fur looks white when it reflects visible light.
A polar bear looks whitest when its coat is clean and in full sun.
12. The large, slightly webbed paws of polar bears enable them to paddle through the water with ease.
Each paw measures roughly 11.81 inches across and is covered with small, soft bumps known as papillae, which help them walk on the ice.
As a result, they can swim up to 60 miles without resting at a speed of 6 miles per hour.
13. The claws on a polar bear are thick, curved and razor-sharp.
Each nail measures roughly 1.9 inches and serves a dual purpose of catching prey and gaining traction on the ice.
14. Contrary to what many people think, polar bears are not ‘left-pawed’ (left-handed).
Scientists dispelled that theory after observing that the bears really don't have a preference and use both paws equally.
15. Polar bears have a powerful sense of smell.
They can sniff prey 0.6 miles away, enabling them to find seals beneath the ice.
Likewise, they can detect a seal in the water beneath 3 feet of compacted snow.
16. Although polar bears spend half their life searching for food, their hunts are often unsuccessful.
Their diet consists mainly of Ringed Seals, which they attack when the seals surface from breathing holes in the ice. Polar bears are clever, patient hunters, able to remain motionless for hours above the breathing holes as they wait for their prey.
Sometimes, they have to wait for days before catching a seal, but once acquired, the bear can eat up to 100 pounds of blubber in one sitting. If seals are unavailable, the polar bear will eat carcasses of whales or walruses, narwhals and small mammals.
17. The polar bears' natural habitat is at risk as the oil and gas industry does more exploratory work in the Arctic.
Oil spills can prevent the insulating effect of a bear's fur and can poison them if ingested. They can also be poisoned by eating prey that has consumed the oils or pesticides.
Sadly, these types of toxins can damage the polar bear's ability to reproduce, too.
18. Climate change is also affecting the polar bear's habitat.
As previously mentioned, melting sea ice causes the bears to wander farther away, searching for food, especially during the summer months. The farther they move from their sea habitat, the higher the chance of encountering more humans.
Dangerous Arctic warming will continue unless we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
19. In 2008, polar bears became the first vertebrate species listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
It’s currently considered a “vulnerable” species, meaning the polar bear population is decreasing.
Recent studies have shown that more and more polar bears will starve as the sea ice continues to melt.
20. Polar bears clean themselves by rolling in the snow.
It helps to insulate their fur and cool them off when they get too hot.
21. Since polar bears are adapted to frozen Arctic temperatures, they can also overheat easier in the summer months.
Overheating can happen when temperatures rise above freezing, and it’s for this reason that you won’t see a polar bear running very much during this season.
22. Polar bears are incredibly smart, exhibiting intelligent social structures and performing survival tasks.
They communicate through body language, vocalizations and scent markings. For example, if a polar bear wants to play, he will wag his head from side to side.
If he needs something from another bear, he will greet him nose-to-nose. Hissing, snorting and a lowered head signal aggression, while roars and growls are a sign of anger.
23. Scientists can now extract polar bear DNA from small scoops of snow where the bear footprints are found.
They can even detect DNA from the last seal that the bear consumed!
24. Polar bears act differently than other bears.
They don't hibernate in the winter months, as that is the best time to hunt seals.
Brown bears also den while polar bears do not (unless a pregnant female is preparing for her cubs).
25. Contrary to belief, orcas seldom prey upon polar bears, even though the whales are at the top of the marine food chain.
People believed that the orcas attacked polar bears swimming or stranded on remnants of ice, but scientists have recently found that this is not always common among whales.
26. Polar bears sleep seven to eight hours at a time and take brief naps throughout the day.
During the spring and summer months, they sleep primarily during the daytime hours to catch seals at night. They usually sleep in the shallow pits that they dig on the cold tundra or ice patches and sleep under snow piles.
They even use ice blocks as pillows!
27. Polar bears have a playful side to their personality.
Young polar bears wrestle with their siblings, and some have been known to play with chained sled dogs without harming them.
They have also been observed sliding down icy hills repeatedly just for fun.
28. Breeding season for polar bears begins at the end of March and goes until June.
A male and female will stay together for roughly a week and mate a handful of times during this period. The female gestational time is 195 to 265 days, during which they will hibernate in preparation for giving birth in November, December or January.
They usually birth one to four cubs, but two cubs ("twins") are most common, followed by single births. The average interval between births is two to three years.
29. Newborn Polar bear cubs weigh 1.5 pounds and cannot see or hear when they are born.
This changes after the first month, and by the second month, they can begin walking around. When they emerge from their dens in the spring, they weigh between 20 to 30 pounds.
Mothers stay with their cubs until they are at least 20 months old and have learned vital survival techniques.
30. Many studies predict that there will be a sharp decline in the polar bear population in the next 30 years unless humans work together to reduce the harmful effects of Climate Change.
In the past 10 years alone, the polar bear population has fallen by 40 percent.
By 2050, the population could be less than 10,000 if nothing changes.