Species: U. maritimus
Range: Canada, U.S. (Alaska), Greenland, Norway, and Russia, with 19 distinct subpopulations
Population: estimated 22,000 to 31,000
Key Features: Distinctive white appearance with black nose; large paws that double as paddles for swimming; 3.5 to 5 ft. tall on all fours; adult males weigh up to 1,200 lbs. and adult females weigh up to 650 lbs.
IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable—at high risk of extinction in the wild
As few as 150,000 years ago—recent by biology standards—polar bears evolved from their brown bear cousins and quickly adapted to the harsh northern climate. With enhanced hunting abilities, seemingly white fur (it’s actually clear, but some cool optical tricks make it look white) to camouflage them in their icy environment, and black skin to soak in the sun’s rays, polar bears are the Arctic’s apex predator.
Classified as marine mammals, polar bears spend about 10 to 20 percent of their day in the water hunting their favorite food, ringed seals, for their calorie-loaded blubber. The bears will track the seals to where they lay hauled-out on the ice or to their breathing holes and then patiently wait—sometimes for several days—for the right moment to attack.
Unfortunately, the sea ice they depend on to hunt is being lost, and as the only fully carnivorous bear in the world they may not be able to adapt quickly enough to find other sources of food. On an Arctic visit in 1899, John Muir is believed to have said that polar bears moved over the frozen terrain “as if the country had belonged to them always.” Today, that remains to be seen.
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The Nose Knows
Although their sight and hearing are similar to humans, polar bears have an incredibly keen sense of smell that allows them to track down seals on the ice from more than 20 miles away. While stalking breathing holes, they can even smell a seal under three feet of ice.
Did you know there were grizzly-polar bear hybrids? In rare cases, their ranges overlap—and the two species have been known to mate. Called a grolar or a pizzly bear, depending on the species of the male, hybrids tend to be tan or cream in color with a slender polar bear snout and the hulking shoulders of a grizzly.
Polar bears are extraordinarily efficient walkers and swimmers, capable of covering vast distances on both land and at sea. Their huge paws—one male’s print has been measured at 13 inches long and 9 inches wide—distribute their weight like a snowshoe and small bumps on their footpads grip the ice, enabling bears to cover more than 20 miles per day for several days at a time.
On the Hunt
Despite spending about half their lives in search of food, it’s estimated that fewer than 2% of hunts are successful. But their unique metabolism, which keeps them warm in the frozen Arctic, also causes them to lose weight very quickly—as much as 10% of their body mass in 10 days, according to one study—making it critical they catch at least one seal a week to survive.
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