The facts, facets, and features of the polar bear
They look cute, they seem cuddly, but if the mood strikes and opportunity presents itself, they’ll make a messy meal of you - mittens and all.
Polar bears are the undisputed sovereigns of the Arctic. And as one of the major draws of Arctic cruises, they’re high on the must-see list for north-bound adventurers, even if we can’t promise all passengers will see one during their voyage.
While spotting a polar bear in person is unassailably marvelous, there’s much to learn about these apex predators than most people know.
What follows are 10 of our favorite facts about Ursus maritimus, God’s dog, whale’s bane, white sea deer, the ever-wandering one, otherwise known as the polar bear.
1. Polar bear fur isn’t really white
A polar bear’s fur is actually transparent, and the skin under all that fluff is as black as their noses. So why do they appear white?
The answer lies in the two layers of polar bear fur: The inner layer is short and thick, the outer layer has longer strands of up to 15 cm (six inches). These longer strands are like needles that are hollow in the middle.
The hollow space contains air for buoyancy and warmth, along with light-scattering particles that shift around inside.
Sunlight bounces around inside the hollow portion of the longer hairs and makes contact with those interior shifting particles, scattering the light like a prism and creating the effect of whiteness.
2. Polar bears are the largest bears on the planet
The biggest of the big, male polar bears can reach to heights of around three meters (10 feet) when they rear up on their hind legs, a sobering sight by any standards.
They can also weigh up to 545 kg (1,200 pounds), roughly the same as seven human adults.
3. Reindeer can see polar bears better than we can
Remember all that stuff about polar bears only appearing white due to the prismatic effect of their fur? Well, just because we see polar bears as white doesn’t mean other animals do.
Reindeer, for example, see in the ultraviolet range, which means polar bears have a harder time hiding from them in the snow - a good deal for Donner and Blitzen, but a point of caution for the rest of us.
4. Polar bears can fast for months
If a polar bear has trouble finding its next meal, such as happens during late summer and early autumn when the lack of sea ice makes seal hunting difficult, the bear is able to deliberately slow its metabolism.
This strategy enables the polar bear to survive off stored fat for several months, something brown and black bears cannot do.
5. Hibernation is not part of the polar bear routine
Though polar bears have a remnant but functionless hibernation trigger in their blood, they remain active all year round. The closest polar bears come to hibernation is in the case of pregnant females, which build dens so they can give birth to their cubs.
These incredibly patient mother polar bears are known to live for up to three months without drinking, eating, or defecating.
6. Polar bears often travel far for their meals
As mentioned, polar bears regularly have to go weeks or months between meals. But sometimes they have to travel a great distance for them as well, often by water: Polar bears are known to swim around 30 km (48 miles) for food.
In fact, the current record is a swim of 687 km (426 miles)!
7. Keen smelling is a polar bear talent
Polar bears can smell seals and other animals up to 32 km (20 miles) away.
They can even smell the breathing holes seals create in the ice from almost one km (.6 miles) away. So although polar bear hunting ranges can span several hundred miles, their sharp olfactory sense helps keep them fed.
8. Polar bears are often sleepy
All that traveling for food can make for some truly drowsy polar bears.
It’s not unusual for polar bears to spend up to 20 hours per day just lying in the snow, enjoying some well-deserved slumber. Indeed, this is frequently the state in which polar bears are seen during our Arctic voyages.
9. Non-skid feet are a polar bear perk
Things can get slippery out there on the Arctic ice, making it harder to pounce on a hot meal than it already is. For this reason, polar bears (and a few other Arctic animals) have developed short, bristly fur on the pads of their feet.
This fur grips the ice like a non-skid sock on a marble floor, preventing not only slips but muffling the polar bear’s movement.
10. Polar bears enjoy their own Arctic cruises
Polar bears spend a great deal of their time alone and at sea, hunting on the pack ice.
That’s a bit more rugged than the experience you’ll have on your own Arctic trip, but if you take away all the fine food and drink, comfortable beds and berths, and wide variety of lively shore landings, the similarity is certainly there to be seen.