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Did you Know

Animals - Polar Bear

Polar Bear Classification and Evolution

The Polar Bear is a large species of bear that is found inhabiting the ice fields in the Arctic Ocean. It is the biggest species of bear in the world (with the exception of the Kodiak Brown Bears found in Alaska which can reach similar sizes) with males often weighing-in at around 600kg. Thought to be closely related to the Brown Bear, the Polar Bears' name actually means "Sea Bear" as they are known to not just spend a great deal of time close to the coast, but are also strong and capable swimmers that have been spotted up to 100 miles from the closest ice or land. They are however being devastatingly affected by global warming as the ice that they rely so heavily on is disappearing fast and has led to the Polar Bear becoming a strong symbol of the effects of climate change. Polar Bear populations have also fallen across the Arctic Ocean due to hunting, pollution and drilling for oil and gas leading to them being as listed as a threatened species,

Polar Bear Anatomy and Appearance

Adult Polar Bears typically measure more than two meters in length and weigh around half a tonne. Females though are much lighter than their male counterparts that are almost double their weight. Polar Bears are one of the few large mammals found in such hostile conditions and have adapted well to their life on the ice. Their fur is thick and dense and is made up of a warm undercoat with longer guard hairs on top that are clear, hollow tubes that trap warmth from the sun and transmit it directly down to their black skin, which then absorbs the welcome heat. The Polar Bear has a strong and muscular body with broad front paws that help when paddling in the water, and fur on the bottom of it's feet that not only helps to keep them warm but also gives the Polar Bear extra grip when moving about on the ice. They have very long necks in comparison to other bear species which enables their head to remain above the water when swimming. They also have more elongated muzzles and smaller ears than their relatives.

Polar Bear Distribution and Habitat

Polar Bears are found on the icy coasts that surround the North Pole and as far south as Hudson Bay. Around 60% of Polar Bears can be found in northern Canada with the remaining individuals distributed throughout Greenland, Alaska, Svalbard and Russia, where they tend to be found relatively close to the ocean roaming vast distances across the ice fields. Polar Bear populations have fallen drastically throughout their natural range with the biggest threat to this enormous carnivore being global warming. Although Polar Bears are accustomed to seasonal changes in the Arctic Circle, the summer ice melt is happening earlier and more ferociously year by year, meaning that Polar Bears have less time to hunt on the ice before it disappears. Their precarious habitats are also affected severely by Human encroachment in the forms of hunting, growing settlements and the release of chemical pollutants into the water.

Polar Bear Behaviour and Lifestyle

The Polar Bear is a solitary animal that can not only run at speeds of up to 25mph but it's strong ability to swim at 6mph makes it a truly apex predator within it's environment. These semi-aqautic mammals can hunt both on the ice and in the water and have been known to swim vast distances across open ocean in search of food. Polar Bears are able to dive under the water to catch their prey which they do by keeping their eyes open and holding their breath for up to two minutes. On land they tend to hunt using two main techniques: they either stalk then chase their prey or sit waiting next to a breathing hole for up to many hours, before ambushing the Seal as it emerges. Eating Seals is vital to the survival of the Polar Bear as they are able to provide it with a high-energy meal. During the short Arctic summer however, Polar Bears are forced further north as the ice recedes when they have to feed on other animals further inland.

Polar Bear Reproduction and Life Cycles

Polar Bears tend to breed in the spring between April and May with the gestation period then varying considerably (depending on the health of the female) due to a period of delayed implantation. After up to 9 months later the female gives birth to between 1 and 4 cubs in a den which she has dug into the snow or ground. The cubs weigh just over half a kilo when they are newborn and are hairless and cannot see. Females enter their dens towards the end of autumn and don't emerge with their cubs until the harsh winter conditions have turned into spring. Although Polar Bear cubs begin eating solid food when they are around 5 months old, they are not weaned until they are between two and three. Cubs are known to commonly play-fight with other cubs which involves wrestling and chasing, along with baring their teeth and even biting one another but without causing harm. These games are critical for Polar Bear cubs to learn how to fight and therefore defend themselves successfully once they leave their mother and live on their own.

Polar Bear Diet and Prey

The Polar Bear is the largest carnivorous mammal on land and must hunt regularly to ensure that it is well-fed and maintains it's insulating layer of fat to keep it warm. The skins and blubber of Ringed Seals make up the bulk of the Polar Bears' diet as they often leave the remaining meat which provides an important sources of food for other animals such as Arctic Foxes. Although Seals are their primary source of food, Polar Bears also eat birds, berries, fish and Reindeer (particularly during the trickier summer months) along with the occasional Walrus. The carcasses from large marine mammals including Seals, Walruses and even Whales also provide a regular food source for Polar Bears that are said to have such a good sense of smell, that they are able to sniff them out from a considerable distance away. Polar Bears are also known to break into underground Seal dens to hunt the pups inside them.

Polar Bear Predators and Threats

Due to the fact that the Polar Bear is an enormous and ferocious predator, there are no animals that prey on them in their surrounding environment. They tend have the most trouble with other Polar Bears and females will protect their cubs fiercely from males that may be trying to harm them. Humans however, are by far the biggest threat to the dwindling Polar Bear population numbers as they have greedily hunted them from their arrival in the Arctic Ocean in the 1600s until the mid 1970s when international hunting bans fell into place. Along with the receding ice fields that are crucial to the survival of the Polar Bear caused by climate change, they are also heavily affected by drilling for oil and gas, increased shipping activity and rising levels of industrial chemicals that pollute the water. The Polar Bear has a relatively slow rate of reproduction which means that populations are not only shrinking rapidly but they are not growing quickly enough to sustain themselves. Some experts claim that the Polar Bear could be extinct from the wild in the next 30 years.

Polar Bear Interesting Facts and Features

Before the harsh winter conditions have fully arrived, female Polar Bears dig themselves a den in the snow where they hibernate through these hostile months (and where they give birth to their cubs) and only emerge in the spring. These dens are known to be up to forty degrees warmer than the outside but males seem to prefer to be active all year round. Polar Bears have a layer of blubber under their skin which can be up to 4 inches thick and helps to keep them warm. They are in fact so well insulated, that Polar Bears must move slowly for the majority of the time so that they don't overheat. Polar Bears shed their fur in the summer meaning that they seem at their whitest at the beginning of autumn. By the spring however, their coats appear to be more yellow in colour which is something thought to be partially due to the oils found in Seal skins.

Polar Bear Relationship with Humans

Before the 1600s when the European, Russian and American hunters arrived in the heart of the Arctic Circle, only native people really knew anything about them. Polar Bears were mercilessly hunted until 1973 when an international agreement put an end to such uncontrolled hunting. Even today native people are still allowed to hunt the Polar Bear for traditional uses but the biggest threat to Polar Bears is the rapidly melting ice shelf. Global warming caused by people is thought to be reducing it so quickly in fact, that some say that their southern limit of Hudson Bay will have no ice at all by 2080. Polar Bears are known to be aggressive towards Humans with reported attacks still occurring including the most recent and famous incident in Svalbard, when a number of teenagers and their expedition leaders were attacked by a Polar Bear in their camp.

Polar Bear Conservation Status and Life Today

Today, the Polar Bear has been listed on the IUCN Red List as a species that is Vulnerable in it's natural environment. Although international hunting bans have prevented such a high level of hunting, conservation efforts within the Arctic Circle prove to be hard with the one thing that the Polar Bear actually needs to survive disappearing more every year. Increased levels of industrial activity in their natural environment also causes declines in the quality of their remaining habitats. There are estimated to be between 20,000 - 25,000 Polar Bears left roaming close to the North Pole, with the majority of these found in northern Canada.