- Binomial Name: Ursus maritimus
- Synonyms: Ursus groenlandicus, ursus labradorensis, ursus marinus, ursus polaris
- First Described as a Distinct Species: 1774
- Closest Relative: Brown bear, ursus arctos
- Location: Arctic Circle
- Diet: Carnivores
- Endangered: Conservation Status is Vulnerable
- Life Span: 20 – 25 years
- Weight: Up to 1,760 lb.
- Litter Size: Usually 1-2 cubs, can be up to 4
Polar Bears Are the Largest Terrestrial Carnivores Alive Today
Their huge size is probably one of the first things you think of when polar bears come to mind, and polar bear facts reveal that you are not wrong. Polar bears actually are incredibly large; males can be up to 9 feet tall when standing up and females up to 7 feet. But their size is nothing compared to their weight. Polar bear facts show that adult males generally weigh anywhere from 550 to 1,320 lb., but they can reach as much as 1,760 lb.
And the record holder? The largest polar bear ever recorded weighed an impressive 2,209 lb. and if he were to stand up on his hind legs, he would be over 11 feet tall. Female polar bears are much smaller in general – they are roughly half the size of male polar bears and only weigh between 200 and 700 lb.
Polar Bears Really, Really Like Seals
But only on a plate! Polar bear facts reveal that they eat almost only ringed seals (Pusa hispida) and bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus). This makes them the most carnivorous members of the bear family. They are lucky, because the Arctic is home to millions of seals that become polar bears’ meals when they surface inside the holes in the ice when they have to catch a breath or when they jump onto the ice to rest for a while. In fact, there are so many seals to pick from that the polar bears can be quite picky about which parts they want to eat. Adult polar bears usually eat only the calorie-rich skin and blubber of the seals, while younger bears often eat the protein-rich red meat of the seals.
Even though meat is their number one choice, polar bears have also been known to prey on birds’ chicks and eggs, and if things get really tough, they are also known to eat vegetation – but only when they really don’t have a choice. In general, polar bears are willing to travel great distances in search of their perfect prey. They primarily hunt at the interface between ice, water, and air. Only on rare occasions do they catch seals on land or in open waters. After they are done with feeding, they wash themselves with water or snow.
Polar Bears Are Active All Year Round
Unlike many of other bears, such as brown and black bears, polar bears do not hibernate, but remain active all year round. However, since the food shortage is not something that only happens to other bears (who usually sleep though the part of the year when food is scarce and hard to find), polar bear facts reveal that polar bears are forced into fasting for as long as a couple of months in periods during late summer and early fall. This is the time when the sea is not frozen, so polar bears are not able to catch seals. Polar bears usually live off their fat reserves during this time, but, since they are very curious animals, they often find other sources of food. Unfortunately, they eat almost anything they can find, which means they often consume garbage left behind by humans, which may contain hazardous substances, such as plastic, car batteries and motor oil.
There is an exception to the non-hibernation – pregnant females. While they do not actually hibernate (hibernation typically includes a drop in heart rate and body temperature, which does not happen with polar bears), they do dig a snow den, crawl into it, give birth in the den and only come out of it three months later. During that time, they live off their fat reserves – they certainly have plenty of them!
The Polar Bear Population Has Decreased Significantly in Recent Years
Polar bear facts show that the population of these stunning animals has been decreasing for a while now, mostly because of the effects of climate change, which reduces their natural living environment, and pollution in the form of toxic contaminants, which polar bears often ingest. Direct contact with humans is also a risk factor for polar bears; recreational polar-bear watching can be very stressful for them, and they are also the target of both legal and illegal hunting.
Estimates on how big the population of polar bears actually is vary. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimates that there were between 20,000-25,000 polar bears left as of 2008, and suspects a population reduction of >30% within three generations (45 years). However, a report published in 2013 shows a whole different picture, as it estimates that the global population of polar bears actually increased by almost 4,200 bears since 2001.
Polar Bears’ Coats Have Almost Super-Powers
Polar bears are famous for their white coats which make them look like children’s toys, perfect for snuggling – but these coats are also extremely useful in the adverse conditions in which polar bears live. Polar bear facts show that their coats have stunning insulation properties, as they contain an internal layer of dense underfur and an external layer of guard hairs. These guard hairs look white, but they are actually transparent, and they can measure anywhere from 2 to 6 inches long. Males’ hairs are significantly longer on their forelegs and they keep growing until the male reaches 14 years of age. These foreleg hairs are probably meant to impress and attract female bears, similarly to a lion’s mane.
Polar bears molt between May and August, and their white coats tend to become yellow with age. However, this generally only happens in the wild. Polar bears living in captivity often live in warmer, more humid conditions, which cause their furs to turn a pale shade of green because of the algae growing inside their guard hairs.
Polar Bears Are Exceptionally Well-Adapted to Their Habitat
Their coats are one of the things that keep polar bears warm in the cold Arctic, but polar bear facts reveal that they have many other useful adaptations up their sleeves. Under their thick and warm coats, they also have a 4-inch layer of blubber that provides insulation. They have a long neck and a narrow skull, which help them warm the air while breathing. They also have black skin, which helps them absorb heat. They do not need all that much of it, though – polar bears overheat at temperatures above 50 °F and are almost invisible under infrared photography.
Apart from excellent protection from the cold, polar bears also have other adaptations that help them survive in the harsh Arctic environment. They have large, flat front feet, which help them with their swimming; they have an extremely well-developed sense of smell and can smell seals nearly a mile away; their hearing is almost as good as that of humans; and they also have great vision, especially at long distances.
Polar Bears Live on the Edge… of the World
You probably already knew that they live only in cold places, but polar bear facts reveal that they are actually only found in the Arctic, which is the Earth’s northern pole. They are mostly found in the Arctic Circle. The most southern point where you can find polar bears is the Newfoundland Islands. However, even though they live in the northernmost part of the world, they are very rare north of 88° latitude.
The polar bear’s natural habitat is becoming smaller and smaller every day, as the ice is melting and its home is slowly starting to disappear. However, polar bears have managed to maintain more of their original range than any other extant carnivores; this is mainly due to the absence of humans in this environment.
There Are 19 Subpopulations of Polar Bears
Even though there are not very many polar bears left in the world, there are still 19 recognized subpopulations of polar bears. According to polar bear facts from 2009, three of these subpopulations are stable, eight are declining, one is decreasing, and for the remaining seven there is not sufficient data available to make any conclusions.
Polar bear facts also show that even though the subpopulations are isolated in terms of living areas, they are not reproductively isolated according to the DNA analysis. Out of 19 subpopulations, 13 live in North America and account for around 70% of the global polar bears population, and the rest live in Eurasia.
Polar Bears Have Been Known to Kill and Eat People
Even though polar bears might look friendly and cute, there have been cases in which people have been attacked and eaten by polar bears. Unlike the brown bear, polar bears are not territorial and are not aggressive in general, so they often choose to escape rather than attack. This means that they rarely attack humans, but when it does happen, the attack is usually deadly. While brown bears usually attack out of surprise and fear, and only maul the attacked person and then leave, polar bears are far more predatory. First of all, they are excellent hunters, so they are rarely surprised, and once they attack, they make sure they finish the job. In any case, the attacks are rare, since not many people actually encounter a polar bear.
Polar Bears Use a Special Hunting Method Called Still-Hunting
Polar bear facts show that polar bears are amazing hunting machines, and their method of hunting – called still-hunting – is an important factor in that. Polar bears first use their exceptional sense of smell to locate seals’ breathing holes, then wait in silence by the hole until a seal appears. This may take several hours – but hunting polar bears are extremely patient creatures. Once the seal comes to take a breath, the bear smells it, and sticks its forepaw into the hole, dragging the seal out onto the ice. The polar bear then kills the seal by biting into its head and crushing its skull.
Polar bears also prey on seals resting on the ice. Once they spot a seal, they first walk until they are about 100 yards away from it, then crouch down. If everything goes well and the seal does not notice the bear, it will crouch at a distance of about 30 – 40 feet away, and then suddenly rush forward and attack the seal.
Contrary to Popular Belief, Polar Bears Do Not Cover Their Noses while Hunting
There is a popular myth saying that polar bears cover their black noses with their paws when hunting, but polar bear facts show that this is not true. There is some logic behind it, though: polar bears are completely white and can perfectly blend in with the white background of the Arctic – only their black noses give them away. However, several research expeditions have documented that no polar bear has ever been seen placing its paw over its nose. In any case, this could be quite difficult – can you imagine a large polar bear walking, swimming, crawling and crouching, all while holding one paw over its nose? Not very likely, is it?
Polar Bears Are Not Easy to Keep Track of
Many animals, especially those belonging to endangered species, are now tracked with special equipment in order to help scientists better understand their movements and behavior, as well as keep track of their population numbers. However, the conventional techniques are proving to be very difficult to use with polar bears. Polar bears have only been tracked since the mid-1980s, and even the data compiled since then is not very reliable. One of the most accurate methods of tracking polar bears is flying over the Arctic in a helicopter, spotting polar bears and shooting them with a tranquilizer dart to sedate them, before tagging them with a tracking device. However, this takes time and money, so polar bears are still one of the most untracked species in the world.
Who Would Have Thought – Polar Bears Are Actually Very Smart
We know they appear cute and cuddly, and that they are actually quite dangerous, but now we also know that they are extremely smart. Research studies show that polar bears could be as smart as some apes, which makes them one of the most intelligent animals in the world. This is perhaps not surprising, considering the stunning hunting methods polar bears have developed and the fact that they have found ways of surviving in the extremely hostile environment of the Arctic. But polar bears go beyond that – they are also very smart when it comes to playing, and have been observed stacking piles of plastic and later knocking them down as part of a game.
Polar Bears Are Excellent at Marathon Swimming
You probably already suspect they must be good swimmers, considering that they spend a large part of their life in the Arctic sea, but polar bear facts reveal that they are actually excellent swimmers who can swim incredible distances. A research study that followed 52 female polar bears found that they swam distances as long as 220 miles, with the average being around 96 miles. The swims lasted from one to 10 days, so their swimming tempo was quite intense. The current record holder managed to swim 400 miles in 9 days – after which time it continued to travel by land for another 1,100 miles. However, experts assume that polar bears did not always swim this much or this far. Before the Arctic ice started melting, there was no need for polar bears to do so much swimming, so the fact that they are marathon swimmers nowadays could simply be a consequence of global warming.
The Myth about All Polar Bears Being Left-Pawed Is Not True
There is a myth that says all polar bears are left-pawed, but it is absolutely not true. Lots of research has been carried out on the subject, and scientists have not noticed any specific preference as to which paw polar bears use. In fact, unlike humans, who in most cases show a distinct preference for using one of their hands over the other, polar bears seem to be able to use their right and left paws pretty much equally. The reasons behind this remain unclear, although logic suggests that being able to use both of your paws with equal success is an incredibly useful thing in the harsh conditions of the Arctic Circle.
Female Polar Bears Gain over 400 lb. During Pregnancy
This is probably a very comforting piece of information for human females who feel that they have gained a little bit too much weight during their pregnancy – apparently, polar bear females are doing much worse! They usually mate in April or May; after the male travels for over 60 miles to find a female, he must then engage in intense fighting with other males. Once the mating starts, polar bears mate contentiously for an entire week, which triggers ovulation in the female.
After mating, the fertilized egg stays suspended for a couple of months, usually until August or September. During this time, female polar bears eat incredible amounts of food and gain at least 440 lb., nearly doubling their body weight.
No Other Animal Dares to Mess with Polar Bears
Polar bears are at the very top of the food chain, which means they have no natural enemies. The only beings capable of fighting and killing a polar bear are other polar bears and – sadly – humans. Some scientists suspect that orcas, also known as killer whales, might be able to attack and kill polar bears while they swim in open waters or rest on a piece of floating ice. However, this is extremely unlikely and, to this date, no such events have been documented or reported. But this doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen in the near future. As the Arctic ice continues to shrink, orcas are expanding their habitat further north, which means that they could start running into more polar bears than in the past.
Polar Bears in the Wild Mostly Die of Starvation
Polar bears only live around 25 years in the wild, with the documented record holder dying at 32 years of age, but can make it up to 43 years in captivity. The reason polar bears die so young in the wild is that older and weaker polar bears are no longer able to cope with the cold and cruel Arctic environment. In most cases, they can no longer catch food, and thus die of starvation. Since polar bears are more or less solitary, there is no one to help them with food once they are unable to catch it on their own. This can also happen to polar bears that are injured in accidents or fights: if they are not able to hunt, this inability slowly leads to starvation.
It Is Not Possible to See a Polar Bear and a Penguin Together in the Wild
Cartoons may have led us to imagine that polar bears and penguins are good friends who often take a stroll together over the icy landscape – but we could not be more wrong. In fact, it is completely impossible to see a polar bear and a penguin together in the wild. This is because they live on the exact opposite sides of the world; while polar bears only live in the Arctic, which is in the northern hemisphere, penguins only live in Antarctica, which is in the southern hemisphere.
Polar Bear Facts — Facts about Polar Bears Summary
Polar bears, or ursus maritimus, are the largest terrestrial carnivores alive today. Males can reach up to 9 feet of height, while females can be up to 7 feet tall. Males and females can weigh up to 1,760 lb. and 700 lb. respectively. They were first described as a species in 1774 and their closest relative is the brown bear, ursus arctos. Polar bears live only in the Arctic Circle and mostly feed on seals, although they also eat other animals. Their conservation status is “vulnerable” and their life span is between 20 and 25 years in the wild.