In 2017, Britain saw its first polar bear cub in 25 years. Born in the week leading up to Christmas, a fluffy polar bear cub recently became the newest resident at the RZSS Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland’s Cairngorms national park.
Polar bears are giant creatures and popular with both young and old. Whilst we think we know them well, here are some surprising facts about them that you may not know.
#1 The Polar bear goes by many names
Ursus maritimus, Thalarctos, sea bear, ice bear, isbjorn, white bear, beliy medved, lord of the Arctic, old man in the fur cloak, and white sea deer are some of the names used to describe a polar bear.
The Norse poets from medieval Scandinavia said polar bears had the strength of 12 men and the wit of 11. They referred to them with the following names White Sea Deer; The Seal’s Dread; The Rider of Icebergs; The Whale’s Bane; The Sailor of the Floe.
The Sami and Lapp refuse to call them “polar bear” in order to avoid offending them. Instead, they call them God’s Dog or The Old Man in the Fur Cloak.
Nanuk is used by the the Inuit, meaning Animal Worthy of Great Respect. Pihoqahiak is also used by the Inuit; it means The Ever-Wandering One.
Gyp or Orqoi – Grandfather or Stepfather – are used by the Ket of Siberia as a sign of respect.
#2 They like to roam
Polar bears respond to seasonal changes and the distribution of seals and sea ice. In food-rich areas, they have smaller home ranges and their habitat often overlaps with other bears.
Scientists believe that most polar bears limit travel to home ranges of a few hundred miles. However, they know of one satellite-tracked female that trekked 4,796 kilometers (2,980) miles—from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay to Greenland to Canada’s Ellesmere Island and back to Greenland.
#3 They can eat 100 pounds of blubber in a single sitting
Blubber is key to a polar bear surviving the harsh Arctic winters. Ringed seals are the most accessible meal, especially to younger bears and females. Male polar bears also hunt larger bearded seals.
When an adult bear is in good shape, polar bears often eat only the blubber in order to build up the fat reserves they need to sustain themselves between meals. They leave the carcass for scavengers such as arctic foxes, ravens, and other bears.
#4 They are top of the food chain
Scientists concedes that, while a killer whale might have an opportunity to attack a bear stranded on a remnant of ice or while swimming in open water, it’s extremely unlikely. To date, there are no reported or documented cases of such predation or attempts.
However, as Arctic sea ice continues to recede, reports of orcas using waters in the Far North are growing, suggesting a range expansion is in progress for some regions like Hudson Bay.
#5 The Polar bear is a patient hunter
In Autumn, a seal cuts ten to fifteen breathing holes (known as aglus by Canadian Inuit) in the ice, using the sharp claws on its fore flippers.
Seals keep their breathing holes open all winter long, even in ice up to two meters (six feet) thick. They surface about every five to fifteen minutes at one of the holes or use air pockets trapped under the ice when available.
Polar bears attack by waiting for seals to breathe at the openings. They locate them with their powerful sense of smell and wait for the seals to emerge. Polar bears have to be smart and patient because the wait can be long—sometimes hours, or even days.
#6 The Polar bear is not actually white
The polar bear’s fur isn’t actually white—it just looks that way. Each hair shaft is pigment-free and transparent with a hollow core that scatters and reflects visible light, much like what happens with ice and snow.
Polar bears look whitest when they are clean and in high-angle sunlight, especially just after the molt period, which usually begins in spring and is complete by late summer. Before molting, accumulated oils in their fur from the seals they eat can make them look yellow.
#7 One town on Canada has a polar bear sin bin
Hundreds of polar bears gather near Churchill, Manitoba, every autumn to wait for the sea ice to form on Hudson Bay.
The province of Manitoba goes to great lengths to protect the bears that support the town’s thriving ecotourism industry.
In 1982, Manitoba Conservation built a holding facility to house problem bears that came too close to town during the fall migration. Manitoba Conservation has developed a highly successful Polar Bear Alert Program.
The program has reduced—but not eliminated—negative human-to-polar-bear encounters.
#8 At birth, polar bear cubs are the size of guinea pigs
Female polar bears give birth to their cubs in snow dens (in November or December), where the family is protected from the harsh Arctic environment. At birth, the cubs are only around 30cm long and weigh around half a kilogram – that’s about the same as a guinea pig!
#9 The Polar bear can swim constantly for days at a time
As well as reaching speeds of up to 6mph in the water, polar bears can swim for long distances and steadily for many hours to get from one piece of ice to another. Their large paws are specially adapted for swimming, which they’ll use to paddle through the water while holding their hind legs flat like a rudder.
#10 The Grizzly-Polar bear hybrid exists
As recently as 2006 genetic testing confirmed the existence of polar bear-grizzly bear hybrids, also known as ‘grolar bears’ or ‘pizzly bears’. The hybrid physically resembles an intermediate between the two species, but as wild hybrids are usually birthed from polar bear mothers they are raised and behave like polar bears. The ability for polar bears and grizzly bears to interbreed is unsurprising when you consider that polar bears evolved from brown bears as recently as 150,000 years ago!