Nature in Focus: Polar Bears
Sea Bear, Ice Bear, Lord of the Arctic… the polar bear goes by many names. They are huge and impressive creatures, living on vast expanses of sea ice. When a young bear grows up it will travel more than 1,000 km to set up a home range away from its mother’s. However, because sea ice is ever shifting and changing, these elusive creatures don’t have territories in the way other bears do.
These bears are built for the cold. With a thick layer of fat, black skin to absorb the heat, and multiple layers of fur, everything about these bear’s build is suited for absorbing and keeping as much heat as possible. Each hair is transparent and hollow. Wide, webbed paws act as paddles when they swim and soft bumps – papillae – on the pads help them grip the snow and ice.
There is one disadvantage to all this: when running, bears quickly overheat, so they can’t keep it up for long. Walking and running takes a lot of energy for bears, which is why they prefer hunting by waiting for a seal to surface at a breathing hole. However, these bears certainly can run. They can reach a fairly incredible speeds of 40 kilometers per hour.
Polar bears are highly communicative animals and not only hunters. Wagging their heads from side to side is a sign that they want to play. Ritualized play fighting is vital practice for when they are older.
Bears also greet each other and ask for things by touching their noses. If one bear is feeding and another approaches, wanting to eat, the second will circle the carcass then meekly touch the nose of the first, asking to join.
Sadly, polar bears are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list. They are most at risk from global warming as the sea ice on which they hunt is decreasing in size every year. This means they have limited access to the seals they prey on. Even more sad is that rising temperatures leads to unstable maternity dens. With snow melting, the dens become unstable and collapse so raising cubs to adulthood is becoming more and more difficult. The bears are being studied and some incredible conservation efforts are going on. In this article, Alysa McCall, Director of Conservation Outreach and Staff Scientist, talks about her experience working in the field with the bears.
If you want to get to know more about the bears and support the conservation efforts, take a look at this unique opportunity to see them first hand:
“Walk with polar bears during a unique Arctic photography and polar bear tour. Hobby and professional photographers alike are offered a rare opportunity to photograph one of the world’s most magnificent predator species in their natural habitat at ground level.”