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What Is in a Polar Bear Habitat?

M.J. Casey
M.J. Casey

The world’s largest bear, the polar bear lives in arctic regions of the United States, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway. Polar bear habitat refers to the unique combination of biotic and abiotic factors that affect successful survival and propagation of polar bears. Biotic factors, or biological influences, include the entire array of living organisms, or the ecological community. Abiotic factors are the physical, or nonliving, factors, such as climate and nutrient availability. These factors relate to the geographic range of the organism.

The availability of the polar bear's primary and secondary food sources, ringed seals and bearded seals, dominates the polar bear habitat. By some estimates, polar bears kill up to 44% of newborn ringed seal pups in the spring, a time when young bear cubs are gaining weight at the rate of a pound (500 grams) a day. Bearded seals are larger than ringed seals and pose a greater challenge. Polar bears do not digest plant material well and need a high ratio of fat and protein in their diets. A seal, with its fat layer that protects it from the cold, is ideally suited as the polar bear’s main food source.

The largest bear in the world is the polar bear.
The largest bear in the world is the polar bear.

Another biotic factor of polar bear habitat is the fish populations upon which seals feed. These fish will vary depending on their habitat’s biotic and abiotic factors. Biotic factors include density of small animals and micro-organisms. Water temperature and oxygen content are examples of abiotic factors. Thus, the entire food chain of the arctic ecology becomes a factor in the polar bear habitat, making polar bears the top of their food chain.

Polar bears live in arctic regions, including Greenland.
Polar bears live in arctic regions, including Greenland.

The habitat of polar bears also reflects the abiotic factors of climate and local weather. Polar bears migrate with the melting and freezing of sea ice, just as the air-breathing seals do. While the climate largely depends on latitude, shape of the coastline and presence of islands, coves, and inlets influence the local ebb and flow of sea ice.

The northern range of these animals exposes them to a high level of ultraviolet light (UV), an abiotic factor. It was once believed that the fur transported UV to the skin for absorption. Subsequent studies discounted that theory, although the bear’s fur absorbs UV light, protecting the skin. Polar bear skin is black, perhaps to increase heat retention.

Pregnant females form dens, usually on land, but males and non-pregnant females live primarily on the sea ice year-round. The preferred habitat is sea ice near the shore that accommodates hunting and den-making needs. Weather dictates the time when pregnant females form dens. Drifts of snow must be deep and permanent enough to house a snow cave. The bears do not dig into the earth below the snow and ice.

Hunting by humans for food, fur, or as trophies has been a factor in polar bear habitat for centuries, beginning with early Eurasian explorers. During the late 1800s through the early 1900s, hunting of these bears devastated some populations. Hunting continued, to a lesser degree, through the 1950s. In 1976, the five countries with polar bear habitat signed the International Agreement on Conservation of Polar Bears. The treaty banned hunting from aircraft or large motorized vessels and initiated other protective measures.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key characteristics of a polar bear's habitat?

A polar bear's habitat is primarily within the Arctic Circle, encompassing the Arctic Ocean's ice-covered waters and its surrounding areas. This environment is characterized by extreme cold, seasonal variations in daylight, and a landscape of sea ice, which polar bears use as a platform for hunting seals, their main prey. The habitat's frigid temperatures can plunge well below -30°C (-22°F).

How do polar bears adapt to their cold habitat?

Polar bears are supremely adapted to their icy environment with a thick layer of body fat and dense, water-repellent fur that insulates them against the cold. Their large paws act like snowshoes, distributing their weight to tread on thin ice, and their black skin absorbs heat from the sun, while a reflective undercoat minimizes heat loss, as noted by polar bear researchers.

What is the impact of climate change on polar bear habitats?

Climate change poses a significant threat to polar bear habitats, as rising global temperatures lead to the melting of sea ice. According to scientific studies, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, resulting in shorter ice seasons and less stable ice, which disrupts polar bears' ability to hunt and access food, ultimately threatening their survival.

What do polar bears eat in their natural habitat?

In their natural habitat, polar bears primarily prey on ringed and bearded seals. They rely on sea ice as a hunting platform to catch these seals, which they can detect from nearly a kilometer away with their keen sense of smell. During the summer months, when ice is scarce, they may also consume whale carcasses, birds, eggs, and vegetation, but these are not their primary food sources.

How large is a typical polar bear's home range?

The home range of a polar bear can be vast, with some bears roaming areas up to 600,000 square kilometers (about 232,000 square miles), as reported by polar bear conservation groups. These ranges vary greatly depending on the availability of sea ice and prey, with some bears traveling thousands of kilometers across the Arctic in search of food.

Are there any other species that share the polar bear's habitat?

Yes, several other species share the polar bear's Arctic habitat. These include other marine mammals such as walruses, narwhals, and various species of whales and seals. Arctic foxes, snowy owls, and various seabirds also inhabit this region. All these species are uniquely adapted to the extreme conditions of the Arctic environment.

Discussion Comments


@behaviourism- I read some articles about Svalbard awhile ago. It is really quite dangerous. From what I know, you have to be able to use a gun, and then bring a gun, to go to certain areas because polar bears are so prevalent. I think you also have to register with someone to say you're going there, so that they know what happened if you disappear. Scary.


Polar bears are so much more dangerous than we want to think. Like many people, I have a few stuffed animals from my childhood making bears, including polar bears, look cute and sweet, but they're not.

I knew someone who went to Svalbard, the island about Norway that is half Norwegian, half Russian, and she came back with all of these pamphlets on polar bear safety. She was still kind of shocked, because before she went she still sort of thought they were just really large, but mostly harmless, things.

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    • The largest bear in the world is the polar bear.
      By: JackF
      The largest bear in the world is the polar bear.
    • Polar bears live in arctic regions, including Greenland.
      By: mady70
      Polar bears live in arctic regions, including Greenland.