Arctic Icon: 10 Facts about the Polar Bear

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Polar bears are to the Arctic what penguins are to Antarctica.

Regions: Arctic

Destinations: Svalbard

Highlights: Polar Bear, Polar Bear Tour

Polar bear facts, facets, and features

Polar bears are to the Arctic what penguins are to Antarctica.

As the most emblematic animal of the far north, polar bears are high on the must-see list for our guests despite the fact we obviously can’t guarantee a sighting.

While spotting a polar bear in person is undeniably wonderful, there are more facets to these fasacinating apex predators than most people realize. 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

One of the lesser-known polar bear facts is that its 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 fact (and 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 the fact 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 slow its metabolism. This is a physiological reaction to the lack of food.

This fact 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

We already mentioned the fact that polar bears regularly go weeks or months between meals. But sometimes they have to travel a great distance as well, often by water: It is not unusual to see a polar bear 50 km (30 miles) or more from land or sea ice.

In fact, the record swim is more than 700 (435 miles), during which the bear spent almost 10 days non-stop in the water!

7. Keen smelling is a polar bear talent

Polar bears can smell seals and other animals up to 9 km (5.6 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

Among our most obvious (but still interesting) polar bear facts is that traveling for food can make for some truly drowsy 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

Though it’s a fact that your own Arctic trip will not nearly be as rugged, take away all the fine food and drink, comfortable beds and berths, and wide variety of lively shore landings, and the similarity between your experience and theirs is comparable. 

Well, loosely comparable.

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