A bear with many names
Polar bears are known by different names around the world, including; sea bear, ice bear, white bear, lord of the Artic, old man in the fur cloak, and white sea deer.
Their scientific name is Ursus maritimus, which means sea bear.
Perfectly adapted to life in the cold
Polar bears live in the Arctic and they are beautifully adapted to these incredibly harsh conditions. Under their fur is a thick layer of fat which helps to insulate them. This can measure up to 11.4 centimetres. This fat layer is really important for when they need to swim, as wet fur is a poor insulator. Another way they minimise heat loss is through their purposely small and round ears and tails.
Polar bears have incredible claws that can measure up to 30cm. They help the bears to walk across thin ice. When they are on very thin ice, the bears extend their legs further apart and keep their bodies close to the ground. Their huge front paws also act as large paddles when they swim in the water, and their back paws act as rudders to help steer them.
How polar bears talk
Polar bears are not the loudest of mammals, but they still communicate with one another through a variety of ways. Social communication is important for animals, and polar bears are no exception. In order to successfully respond to their young, interact with other adults, and avoid fights, polar bears communicate using body language, vocalisations, and scent markings.
“I want to play!”
Adult polar bears are actually quite playful. Their play bouts are usually mock fights, which serve several functions, they help them to practice for real fights, build the necessary muscle tone, and they are fun. When a polar bear wants to play they will wag their head from side to side. The play fight usually then involves them standing on their hind legs, with their chin lowered to their chests, and their front paws hung loosely by their sides.
“Please share with me!”
Food is scarce in the polar bear habitat, and so when another bear has found food they may be approached by others wanting to share. Adult male polar bears may be less likely to share, but a female who is approached by her grown offspring may be willing to let them join her in a meal. To initiate this, the approaching bear will come up slowly, circle around the carcass, and then gently and submissively touch the feeding bear’s nose. These nose-nose greetings are a non-aggressive social interaction that say, “I come in peace”.
“Don’t mess with me”
When a polar bear is angry and wants to deter another bear away, they can perform a number of aggressive communications. Polar bears may roar loudly, growl, hiss, or snort in order to show anger and aggressive intentions. Deep growls are a warning sign, and they are generally used to defend food.
If these warning signs do not work, then a polar bear may charge forwards with their head down and their ears laid back to attack the other bear. A female may do this rushing behaviour when protecting her cubs from an unwanted male.
Not all polar bears want to fight. If they smell a more dominant bear around, then they will move themselves downwind of them, to keep out of their way.
Polar bears really are amazing animals!
Polar bear conservation
Polar bears are listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN. The main threat to polar bears is climate change. There are thought to be around 23,000 polar bears worldwide. This number could drop dramatically in the next few decades if climate change continues.
Polar bears are also threatened by pollution, commercial use of the Artic, disease, hunting and habitat degradation.
The main concern caused by climate change is that the polar bears are losing habitat and are unable to get to their main prey; seals. Polar bears rely on the sea ice for hunting, and as the Artic warms, the sea ice is melting, and polar bears are becoming increasingly cut-off from their main hunting grounds. This is particularly challenging for females with cubs, as cubs do not have the thick layer of fat they need to survive the cold water. Mother bears are therefore reluctant to swim with young cubs, restricting their access to food considerably.
Polar bears in captivity
Many polar bears are housed in poor quality conditions within zoos and ocean parks. Polar bears are intelligent, wide-ranging animals and many such captive facilities, with their space limitations and commercial considerations, cannot provide the environment necessary to allow them to express their natural behaviours, and to meet their diverse physical, behavioural and psychological needs. This causes the bears a significant amount of stress and suffering. For example, captive polar bears perform stereotypic behaviours which are abnormal, and are a sign of stress in captive animals.
To learn more about helping polar bears in the wild click on these links:
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POLAR BEAR WEEK
Polar bear week is November 3-9th. To find out more, click below.