Native to the arctic circle, polar bears are seal snacking, snow strutting, arctic explorers. Heading off on an arctic cruise? Wow your companions with these ten facts about this fascinating species:
Polar bears are classified as marine mammals
Because polar bears spend so much of their time on the ice of the Arctic Ocean, they are considered to be marine mammals. Their unique dependence on the ocean ecosystem to survive means they are the only bear species to classify as such. Their longer snouts, heads and bodies are more streamlined than other bears, which allows them to swim more efficiently. Interestingly, their scientific name ursus maritimus means ‘sea bear.’
Polar bears can swim constantly for days
As well as reaching speeds of 6mph in the water, polar bears can swim constantly for long distances to get from one piece of ice to another. Their large paws are specially adapted for swimming - they use their front two paws to paddle through the water while keeping their hind legs flat like a rudder. Did you know that polar bears can hold their breath underwater for up to 2 minutes? Their nostrils automatically seal shut in order to prevent them from ingesting water - clever!
On land, polar bears can reach speeds of 25mph
Polar bears can reach speeds of up to 25mph on land. This speed doesn’t always come in handy during the search for food, though. Although these marine mammals spend more than half of their lives searching for food, less than 2% of their hunts are successful. Polar bears main prey includes ringed seals and bearded seals but they do settle for small mammals, birds, eggs, vegetation and even carcasses.
Polar bear paws are expertly designed for traversing the landscape
To assist with speed, polar bear paws are expertly designed to traverse the arctic landscape. Their paws, which measure up to 30 centimetres, have black footpads which are covered by small, soft bumps called papillae. These footpads, along with tufts of fur between the toes, grip the ice and stop the bear from slipping. Polar bears also have extremely thick, sharp, strong claws, which they can use to help gain further traction when walking on ice.
Male polar bears can weigh as much as 10 men
Polar bears are the world’s largest land-dwelling carnivores. Male polar bears are twice the size of female polar bears and can weigh up to 125 stone - that’s as much as 10 men - and reach as long as 9 feet. Reportedly, the largest polar bear ever recorded weighed almost 157 stone and stood at 11 feet 1 inch on its hind legs.
Female polar bears have up to five litters in their lifetime
Polar bears are mostly solitary creatures with the exception of the breeding season. A female polar bear will, on average, give birth to five litters of cubs in her lifetime. Typically, two-thirds of polar bear litters are twins but female polar bears can give birth to one, two or three cubs. The babies, which are born helpless with no sight, no teeth and only a sparse layer of fur, live in their snow dens for up to three months. Though they grow quickly, polar bear cubs don’t venture outside until they are used to the freezing temperatures and have learned how to live and hunt on the ice.
Pizzly bear hybrids are on the rise
Yes, pizzly bears are a thing and their numbers are growing. A hybrid of a grizzly bear and a polar bear, pizzly or grolar bears have light brown fur with the slim, pointed snout of a polar bear and the big bulky shoulders of a grizzly bear. Polar bears are forced to retreat to land, where grizzly bears roam, during the summer months. As wild hybrids are usually birthed from polar bear mothers they are raised and behave like polar bears.
Scientists can extract polar bear DNA from footprints
An innovative new technique developed by WWF and DNA specialist firm SPYGEN allows scientists to isolate DNA from a polar bear’s footprint in the snow. Two tiny scoops of snow from a polar bear track revealed not just the DNA of the polar bear that made it, but even from a seal it had recently eaten.
Polar bears are actually black, not white
Though we think of them as bright white creatures that blend into their snowy surroundings, polar bears are actually black. Their fur is pigment-free and translucent with a hollow core that reflects and refracts visible light, which creates a white appearance. Polar bears look their whitest just after their moulting period in spring/summer. Prior to that, the oil build up in their fur from snacking on seals can make them look yellow.
Polar bears have a very good sense of smell
Polar bears can smell their prey up to half a mile away. They use their strong sense of smell to find seal breathing holes in the ice. Once they’ve found them, they wait patiently for the seal to come up for air before they attack. If successful, they may be approached by another polar bear to share. Polar bears ask to share things, such as food, through a nose-to-nose greeting.