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What is a Polar Bear?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A polar bear is a member of a unique bear species which has specially adapted itself to the Arctic environment. Polar bears can be found throughout the Arctic, in what scientists believe to be at least 19 different subpopulations. These large animals are considered quite beautiful and majestic by many people, and in some regions they have been used as symbols of the Arctic and Arctic culture. The polar bear is also an animal of special concern and interest to scientists, because polar bear populations are very vulnerable to things like climate change and human encroachment.

The formal name for the polar bear is Ursus maritimus. These bears are among the largest predators in the world, reaching weights of up to 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms), with streamlined bodies which are designed for extremely efficient hunting. Polar bears have adapted a number of features for the Arctic environment, including a thick layer of insulating blubber, hollow translucent hairs which help trap warm air next to the skin, and small ears and tails to minimize heat loss. They also have large feet, which help distribute their weight evenly across thin ice and snow.

The distinguishing feature of the polar bear to many people is the classic white coat which the animals have right after molting. In fact, the hair of a polar bear is not white, as discussed above; the hairs simply refract light in a way which makes them appear white. Polar bears can also turn yellow as their hairs age and become stained, and in captivity, polar bears can turn green, as algae colonizes their hollow hairs.

Most polar bears eat a diet of seal, walrus, birds, and sometimes seaweed and fish as well. The animals have adapted muscular legs for killing their prey at one blow, along with a hefty set of teeth for efficient consumption. Polar bears live for around 20 years in the wild, and biologists estimate that there are around 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears roaming the Arctic today.

These animals are considered threatened, and in some regions they are listed as endangered species. Polar bears have experienced habitat pressure as a result of shrinking icecaps, combined with expanding human populations in the Arctic. Some polar bears are starving because they are unable to find food, while others are shot because they are a nuisance for human communities. These unfortunate circumstances have led some biologists to express alarm over the fate of the polar bear, suggesting that the animals could vanish in the wild by the middle of the 21st century.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a polar bear and where can it be found?

Polar bears are large carnivorous mammals native to the Arctic region. They are well adapted to cold climates, with a thick layer of body fat and dense, water-repellent fur that insulates them against the frigid temperatures. Polar bears are primarily found across the circumpolar Arctic, roaming the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean, and in the coastal areas of countries like Canada, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Greenland, and Norway (Svalbard).

How do polar bears adapt to their environment?

Polar bears have evolved several adaptations for survival in the Arctic. Their white fur camouflages them against the snow and ice, while their black skin absorbs heat from the sun. They have a keen sense of smell to detect prey nearly a mile away and under several feet of compacted snow. Their large paws distribute weight to tread on thin ice and are also equipped with non-slip pads for grip.

What do polar bears eat?

Polar bears are apex predators with a diet mainly consisting of seals, particularly ringed and bearded seals. They rely on sea ice as a platform to hunt these seals by waiting at breathing holes or breaking into seal dens. Occasionally, they may also consume walrus, beluga whale carcasses, and other marine mammals, but seals are their primary source of high-fat sustenance.

How are polar bears affected by climate change?

Climate change poses a significant threat to polar bears due to the melting of sea ice, which is crucial for their hunting and breeding practices. According to the World Wildlife Fund, polar bears are spending more time on land, where food is scarce, leading to malnutrition and lower cub survival rates. The reduction in sea ice also forces polar bears to swim longer distances, which can be exhausting and sometimes fatal, especially for younger bears.

How large can polar bears grow and how long do they live?

Polar bears are among the largest land carnivores, with males typically weighing between 900 to 1,600 pounds and females about half that size. They can measure over 8 feet in length. In the wild, polar bears can live up to 25 years, though their lifespan is often shorter due to the harsh conditions of their environment and increasing human-related threats.

Are polar bears endangered?

Polar bears are classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Their population, estimated at 22,000 to 31,000 bears, is under pressure due to climate change-induced habitat loss, pollution, industrial impacts, and illegal hunting. Conservation efforts are focused on mitigating climate change and protecting critical polar bear habitats to prevent further decline.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By SnowyWinter — On Nov 08, 2010

@cmsmith10: Here are a few more things that you could add to your research paper:

Amazingly, some female polar bears build dens with more than one room. They have even found some with “ventilation systems” in the roofs.

Female polar bears don’t start having cubs until they are about 4 or 5 years of age. The babies weigh a little more than a pound when they are born.

Polar bears can swim up to 6 mph.

By DinoLeash — On Nov 08, 2010

@cmsmith10: You are doing a great research paper if you are doing it on polar bears! They are awesome creatures. I will try to provide you with a few facts that you might not know.

Polar bears are capable of swimming in the open seas for hundreds of miles. They can also run at speeds up to 35 mph. Many polar bears will spend their whole lives on ice without ever setting foot on land.

Polar cubs learn to freeze and remain perfectly still while their mother hunts. If they move, the mother will discipline them with a little whack to the head. Female polar bears prefer to build their dens in old snow from the previous years rather than freshly fallen snow.

By cmsmith10 — On Nov 08, 2010

Great article! I need a few more facts about polar bears for a research paper that I'm doing. Can anyone provide any more information? Thanks.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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