The (Polar) Bear Facts

Sheri Walker • Feb 19, 2018 at 10:12 AM

Polar bears have been front-and-center since May 2008, when they were listed as a threatened species in the United States under the Endangered Species Act.

So today, in honor of upcoming International Polar Bear Day, recognized on Feb. 27 since 2011, let’s take a look at some polar bear facts that make them, in addition to being the largest species of all bears and the largest terrestrial carnivore on earth, one of the most distinctive animals on the planet.

Did you know:

• Polar bear babies weigh in at little more than a pound at birth — which is remarkable, considering that the largest polar bear on record was over 12 feet tall and weighed in at 2,210 pounds. As newborns, they are blind, toothless and covered with short, soft fur.

• Polar bears see in color.

• Polar bear fur, while it looks white or cream-colored, is actually hollow and translucent — at least, the outer “guard” hairs are. The guard hairs protect a thick undercoat which is also transparent (but not hollow). The fur appears white because the air spaces in each hair reflect light rather than absorbing it. The fur itself provides protection from the cold while the white appearance provides the bears with camouflage. Even the spaces between a polar bear’s toes are heavily furred for warmth and traction.

• Polar bears have black skin. The darker pigment helps protect them against cold.

• A polar bear’s paw can be as big as a house! OK, maybe not a house, but as much as 12 inches wide, with claws from 4 to 6 inches long that are thick, sharp and curved, for catching those slippery seals.

• When polar bears walk, their back paws end up where their front paws were, making it look as if they are walking on two feet, like humans. Inuit legends say the polar bear — known as “Nanuq,” “Nanuk” or “Nanook” — has the ability to shape-shift back and forth between bear and human form. As a result they are held in high regard, equal with humans in wisdom and power.

• Polar bears play during courtship. (For a truly entertaining four-minute look at this behavior visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=nB7gS5IcD84. Don’t worry — it’s PG.) While mating takes place in the spring on the sea ice, the eggs do not implant until the following fall, and only if the mother is healthy enough and has enough fat to sustain herself and her cubs until spring. This is known as delayed implantation and it gives the cubs the best chance for survival.

• Polar bears can sprint in short bursts at speeds estimated around 30-40 mph, which beats the human speed of around 27.5 mph — so do the math before trying to outrun one. (Just sayin’. …)

• Polar bears roll in the snow not only to groom their fur but to cool off — believe it or not, they are prone to overheating.

• Churchill, Manitoba, is known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, because it is one of the few human settlements where polar bears can be observed in the wild. Prime time for viewing polar bears is October and November, when thousands of visitors from around the world come to see Ursus maritimus, the scientific name for polar bears, which means “sea bear.”

• There are only around 20,000 polar bears left in the world.

For more on polar bears, visit www.worldwildlife.org/species/polar-bear.

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