What do you know about the polar bear?
It is not hard to imagine how animals survive in their habitat as long as enough food and water are available. Additionally, every animal is born with very distinct physical and behavioural characteristics that enable them to escape predators.
But when a habitat is known to be barren, one cannot help but wonder how animals or any living organisms survive. Barren areas are much like that mainly due to extreme weather conditions. Desert is one famous example. High temperatures and water scarcity are two major features of the desert. Similarly, the north and south poles are the Earth’s coldest regions. Temperatures in the poles can drop to as low as -89.6°C (recorded in 1983).
That said, we might think that these harsh conditions make it challenging, if not impossible, for animals to survive. But that is not quite true. While many species would surely die if they lived in the desert or the poles, other animals do survive and even flourish there thanks to how they are designed.
For instance, animals that live in the desert go through a phase of deep sleep known as hibernation in harsh winters and aestivation during boiling summers. In these phases, the animal becomes inactive and experiences low metabolism. This is its natural way to preserve energy and survive till the end of the season. Some of these animals are reptiles.
Likewise, other animals were created to endure living in extremely cold areas only. That means that they would not be able to survive if their habitat were warm, for example, penguins. They are native to the southernmost frozen continent of Antarctica. Their living in colonies allows them to keep their body temperatures at 37°C even when the temperature drops to -60°C or lower in winter.
The polar bear is another extraordinary example of an animal that survives in freezing cold regions. Unlike the penguins, the polar bear is native to the Arctic; the north pole. This is where they are suited to survive, flourish, and breed.
And the polar bear is what we are discussing in this article.
Exploring the polar bear as a species and learning about its habitat is like collecting the points of excellence and majesty. So be prepared.
First off, the polar bear by its mere existence is a unique species. It is closely related to the brown bear. They are both believed to have descended from the same dark bear ancestor. At some point in the Earth‘s history, hundreds of thousands of years ago, some bear individuals diverged and gradually developed an ability to survive in harsh conditions.
Evolution continued for thousands of generations until we got the white-fur-bearing polar bear we have now. Interestingly, such a change in the fur colour perfectly suits the polar bear’s icy habitat. It gives the animal the ability to camouflage into the environment to manipulate and catch its prey.
Although it is born on land, the polar bear is considered a marine animal like fish and whales. That is because it spends most of its time on the sea ice from which it hunts its favourite prey: seals. Polar bears are also perfect swimmers with a swimming speed of up to 10 km/h. They can also swim for long distances and for many hours too.
Furthermore, polar bears sometimes swim continuously for days to reach far ice. One female bear was reported to have swum a total distance of 2500 km. About 700 km of that distance were travelled continuously for nine consecutive days! In such long travels, mothers sometimes take their cubs to swim with them. However, being small and weak, some cubs die.
The reason why polar bears take such a high risk is to remain alive. As climate change worsens and more ice floes are melting, polar bears are forced to swim for longer distances to find ice to live off.
Polar bears usually live longer than 20 years. The oldest recorded polar bear lived in the wild for 32 years. In captivity, the oldest polar bear died at the age of 43.
The polar bear is the largest bear species in the world. Usually, a male polar bear is called a boar and a female is a sow. Though they look almost the same, male and female polar bears do possess a few differences, especially in size.
For instance, an adult male polar bear normally has a total body length of 2.4-3 m and ranges between 1.3-1.6 m tall when standing on four legs. When they stand upright, male polar bears can reach 3 m. A male polar bear also weighs between 350 and 700 kg. With females measuring roughly half of that, they can weigh a maximum of 250 kg and range between 1.8 and 2.4 m in length.
The polar bear has short, heavily built legs. They assist the animal to walk, swim and even run. In fact, the polar bear can reach a speed up to 40 km/h.
The entire body of the polar bear is covered with a dense fur coat which is a whole different thing. First of all, the fur coat comprises two layers to insulate the animal’s body from the surrounding cold temperature. It looks white but gets creamy with age. Despite that, the fur hairs themselves are transparent. And the polar bear’s skin is, in fact, black!
Interestingly, that dense fur coat sheds old hair to allow new hair to grow long. This is a process known as moulting. It typically happens annually from May to August.
Male polar bears are mature enough to mate at the age of eight or 10. However, females can breed at a much younger age, usually when they are five or six years old. Mating does not happen all year long, but only in April and May. Males can sense females suitable for mating. Sometimes they follow them for long distances and get into fights with other males to win their hearts.
Pregnancy lasts between 195 and 265 days; around six to nine months. During this period, females take special care of their diet. They tend to eat so much that they double their weight. Sometimes, pregnant females weigh up to 500 kg. This helps them nurse their cubs with nutrition-rich milk.
Also during pregnancy, females build dens for their upcoming cubs. To be more precise, they dig their dens in the snow, providing a tunnel for entry and exit.
Females give birth between November and February to two cubs on average. Sometimes, they can have one or three cubs per pregnancy. On very rare occasions, females may give birth to four cubs. Despite their mother’s huge size, cubs are born very small, weighing less than 1 kg each. They are completely vulnerable and blind as well.
After birth, the mother stays in the den with her newborn cubs. Thanks to her heavy feeding during pregnancy, she nurses them with nutrition-rich milk. Nursing continues for a few months until the cubs grow to weigh 10 to 15 kg. By this time, they are strong enough to leave the den and explore their surroundings, practice walking, and spend time playing with one another.
Like lions, tigers, and every other big cat, polar bears are apex predators; they are at the top of the food chain. That means, they are not prey to any other animal but they prey on other animals. Polar bears, thereby, are meat eaters. Their diet primarily consists of seals whose bad luck made them native to the Arctic.
Polar bears are distinct for having sharp senses, the thing which assists them to feed. For instance, the polar bear enjoys an extremely sharp sense of smell. It can smell seals from a distance as long as 1.6 km. It can also locate the seals even when they are burying themselves in the snow at a depth of 1 km. In addition, polar bears can see for long distances and hear as well as humans.
That said, polar bears’ diet is not limited to seals. They like to eat a variety of other foods as well, as long as they are available. For instance, polar bears also prey on other Arctic animals such as reindeer, rodents, muskoxen, birds as well as their eggs. Sometimes, they even eat crabs, fish, and plants.
Predators seem to share a stereotype of being violent. But that is often incorrect. When it comes to the polar bear, it is in fact more peaceful than it is aggressive. If the bear confronted a danger of any kind, its first reaction would be to escape and not get into a fight, despite being able to.
Adult polar bears are known to develop friendships with one another. This results in them spending long hours and playing together. However, friends do not really live with one another since they would rather be solitary. Polar bears also communicate with one another using some special vocalisations.
That said, a hungry polar bear’s behaviour is totally unpredictable. They would do anything in search of food. Sometimes, they turn completely aggressive and may even attack humans if they happen to be around. However such attacks are rare because not that many people live in the Arctic.
Because its numbers are decreasing at a worrying rate, the World Conservation Union has listed the polar bear as vulnerable. That means, if the animal continues to be left in the wild without conservation, it may become endangered and face the threat of going extinct.
The decrease in the polar bear numbers is mainly attributed to some threats imposed by human activity. For example, natives to the Arctic kill polar bears to take advantage of their meat and fur. They also kill them to either proudly display their pelts or exchange them for large deals of money.
Though killing causes the bear’s population to shrink, it is climate change that is considered the polar bear’s harshest threat. Oil spill in the Arctic Ocean also kills the polar bear.
As we have mentioned earlier, polar bears mainly feed on seals. But seals migrate every year to breed and moult. Before this happens, polar bears tend to hunt and feed more than usual to build fat reserves. These fats help the bears survive the time when much food is not available.
So to store more fats, polar bears need to hunt more often. And hunting happens from sea floes. Climate change causes these floes to melt. So the bears find nothing to stand on to hunt seals. This forces the bears to back off to the shore before they have eaten sufficiently to survive the food scarcity period. This also badly affects the cubs during their nursing period since their mother would not be able to meet their high nutritional needs. As a result, cubs may grow weak.
Bears not getting enough food makes them more prone to hunger. Hungry bears tend to be more aggressive. They may attack humans if they confront them.
When they must look for food, polar bears take the risk of swimming for longer distances. This makes them lose a lot of their body fat. As a result, they get weaker and less able to keep going. Sometimes, polar bears may drown of extreme weakness and fatigue.
Additionally, some females happen to take their cubs with them on these long swims. Being unable to endure such harsh journeys, the poor, underdeveloped cubs sometimes die. These practices lower the bears’ reproduction rate. Therefore, the polar bear’s numbers declines.
Climate change also affects the dens mothers usually dig for their upcoming cubs. The increasing temperatures cause the den roofs to collapse, exposing the cubs to the air. Also, the melting ice disables the digging of underground dens, leaving mothers and cubs almost homeless.
Warmer climates also increase the chance of bacteria and parasites attacking the bears. These can cause diseases that lead to the bears’ death.
Another threat poor polar bears are encountering is the oil spill in the Arctic Ocean, precisely where the bears and seals are found in large numbers. Dirtying the bear’s fur with oil reduces its efficiency in insulating the bear’s body; therefore, causing its temperature to decrease dramatically and eventually leading to death.
Furthermore, if the bear tries to clean itself by licking its oiled fur, this may cause the bear’s kidneys to fail.
Regardless of all the threats we have just listed, there is a dispute over whether or not to spend effort on conserving polar bears. This dispute was raised by another dispute over the real worldwide population of the polar bear.
For instance, in 2015, the number of polar bears was reported to be ranging from 22,000 to 31,000. However, as of July 2022, their population is unknown. That is because it is quite hard to estimate that number because the bears live in a wide-ranging habitat. Having polar bears swim long distances to find ice floes is one side of that challenge.
Secondly, most of the conservation of polar bears is mainly centred on raising awareness to tame global warming. This will not allow the polar bears to flourish all of a sudden. But at least it will help reduce the pace at which they are dying.
Today’s journey was short but hopefully worth it.
In this article, we discussed the polar bear, the white descendent from an ancient dark bear ancestor. Polar bears live exclusively in the north pole where they are designed to endure the extremely low temperatures and actually survive on the ice.
We have learned some interesting facts about the polar bear. For instance, they are excellent swimmers and divers. They can travel continuously for days to find ice floes to live on. They can also run at a maximum speed of 40 km/h. In addition, polar bears have an extremely sharp sense of smell. It helps them when hunting seals which comprise most of the polar bear’s diet.
We have also discussed the polar bear’s behaviour when mating and how females dig dens and take care of their cubs, despite sometimes exposing them to danger when taking them on long swims.
Then we ended the article with some important facts about the threats polar bears face. The harshest of these threats is climate change. Climate change causes the bears to lose their habitat, face food scarcity, encounter extreme hunger, and be forced to swim longer distances to look for food. All of those lead to death and dramatically affect the population of the polar bear.
And despite the efforts made by the countries that share a part of the polar bear’s habitat, it is the control of climate change that can stop the bears from becoming endangered.
If you enjoyed learning about this facinating animal why not check out more fantastic facts about other animals: Koalas, Ostriches, Land Animals, Sharks, Raccoons, Moon and Sun Bears, Rats, Sheep, Chickens, Cats, Pandas, Monkeys and Whales.
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