15 Big, Furry Facts About Polar Bears
Polar bears don't just live in the cold—they’re also super cool. Here are just 15 fascinating things you should know about them.
1. CHURCHILL, MANITOBA IS THE “POLAR BEAR CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.”
Every autumn, hundreds of polar bears come to the outskirts of this small Canadian town (and sometimes venture into it) and wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze over. With the bears come flocks of researchers, filmmakers, and tourists trying to get close to the animals on “tundra buggy” tours. Because of the close contact between bears and people here, the local bears are the world’s most closely-studied polar bear population in the world. You can see some photos from Churchill here.
2. CLIMATE CHANGE IS MAKING THEIR SEX LIVES INTERESTING.
Rising global temperatures are pushing some animals to expand their ranges and enter new territory, putting them in contact with previously isolated animals—and sometimes, these new neighbors get a little friendly. Over the last decade, scientists have documented several hybrid offspring of polar and grizzly bears, dubbed “grolar” or “pizzly” bears. Researchers predicted that the Arctic would become a melting pot as loss of ice brought other isolated species together, but a newer analysis published this year suggests that range overlaps, and the chances for hybridization, could be far fewer than thought.
3. THEY’RE NOT REALLY WHITE ...
Looks can be deceiving. Despite their snowy white appearance, a polar bear’s fur is actually pigment free, hollow, and transparent. The fur looks white because of light being refracted through their clear hairs. Sometimes the fur can also take on a yellowish tint thanks to wear and tear and oils from the seal fat that polar bears eat. In captivity, the bears’ fur can also turn green when algae from their pools gets inside worn-down hairs.
4. ... AND THEY’RE BLACK UNDER ALL THAT FUR.
Underneath their thick coat, polar bears’ skin is black. Scientists had speculated that the hollow hairs and black skin helped the bears keep warm, with the hairs funneling UV radiation like fiber optic cable and the skin absorbing it. When researchers tested that idea, though, they found that the fur absorbed most UV light and transmitted very little energy to the skin.
5. THEY GET HOT EASILY.
Even without absorbing heat, polar bears have plenty of adaptations for keeping warm in the Arctic. Their two layers of fur and a thick layer of fat provide insulation, while their small ears and short tails and snouts help minimize heat loss. It sounds a little counterintuitive, but polar bears have more issues with overheating than they do with getting cold, according to Polar Bears International. They can quickly overheat when they run, so they typically move slowly and don’t overexert themselves.
6. THEY’D MAKE GREAT SPIES.
You’d think a big bear would be easy to spot, but all of these adaptations also make the bears hard to keep tabs on: Scientists can have trouble tracking them on the tundra because they blend in so well against the snow and ice. When one research team tried tracking them with infrared cameras, they found that they could only see the bears’ eyes, noses, and breath. The bears’ insulation kept the rest of their bodies from losing enough heat to pick up on the cameras.
7. THEY SOMETIMES SHARE MEALS.
Polar bears are normally solitary, but it’s not unusual for them to come together when there’s food to go around. According to the book On Thin Ice, zoologist Nikita Ovsyanikov has observed “14 polar bears eating shoulder-to-shoulder at a single walrus carcass” and counted 100 bears gathered around a whale carcass. In these cases, the carcass “belongs” to one bear, who shares with others that follow proper begging protocol—approaching in a submissive posture, circling the carcass and touching noses with the food’s owner.
8. THEY FIND EACH OTHER THROUGH SMELLY FOOTPRINTS.
Polar bears get together to do something else besides feast—make more little polar bears. Finding a mate seems like a tall order for loners with enormous home ranges that change seasonally, but research shows that the bears have a handy way of sniffing each other out. With each step, they leave chemical deposits from their foot pads on the ice and tundra, creating a scent trail in their footprints that other bears can use to find a mate or avoid competition. With a few sniffs, male bears can distinguish the footprints of males and females and even figure out if a female is ready to reproduce.
9. THEY’RE PATIENT HUNTERS.
Polar bears also rely on smell to find food, sniffing out the breathing holes that seals dig into the sea ice. Once they find one, they employ a tactic called still-hunting. Basically, they play the waiting game, and spend hours or even days sitting patiently by a hole until a seal comes by to take a breath. When one does, the bear springs into action, reaching into the hole and dragging the seal out onto the ice.
10. THEY CAN PIG OUT WITH NO PROBLEMS.
Adult polar bears generally eat only the fatty skin and blubber from seals, which leads to extremely high cholesterol levels. Yet, they’re not dropping dead from heart attacks left and right. A study published last year revealed some genetic mutations that help the bears deal with a high-fat diet. One important change involves a gene that helps shuttle LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, out of the blood and into cells, where it poses less of a cardiovascular danger.
11. THEY’RE INTERNATIONAL.
The bears’ range around the Arctic Circle includes territory owned by five different nations: Norway, Russia, Denmark (by way of Greenland), the United States, and Canada (which is home to more than half of the world’s polar bears). All five “range states” are members of a treaty that regulates polar bear hunting and promotes cooperation on polar bear research and conservation.
12. THEY START SMALL …
Polar bear cubs are just a foot long and weigh around a pound when they’re born. According to Polar Bear International, a cub looks like “a big, white rat.”
13. … BUT GET REALLY BIG.
Adult bears are typically 3.5 to 5 feet tall at the shoulder and can hit 10 feet when standing on their hind legs. Males weigh in between 775 and 1300 pounds, while the smaller females tip the scales at 330 to 650 pounds.
14. THEY’VE BEEN SELLING COKE FOR ALMOST A CENTURY.
Coca-Cola debuted their first polar bear advertisement in 1922 in France. For the first TV spot featuring the bears, which showed them sipping soda and watching the aurora borealis, writer/director Ken Stewart drew inspiration from his dog. According to the company, Stewart thought his pooch resembled a polar bear as a puppy. While working on the ad campaign, Stewart looked at his dog, “thought about polar bears and how they would go to the movies, and the idea for ‘Northern Lights’ was born.” The spot aired in 1993.
15. POLLUTION IS BAD FOR THEIR PRIVATE PARTS.
As if climate change wasn’t causing them enough problems, chemical pollutants could be hurting polar bears in a sensitive spot. Research has linked PCBs in the Arctic to weaknesses in the bears’ baculums, or penis bones, which could lead to penile fractures and reproductive problems.