15 Amazing Facts About Polar Bears
Did you know it was possible to have translucent fur?
If someone asked you to name the color of a polar bear's fur, you'd probably say white. And it turns out, you'd be wrong. As you're about to learn, it's actually translucent—and that's not the only fact you didn't know about these incredible Arctic animals. From the surprising way they hunt to how long they can go between meals, these are the fascinating polar bear facts we bet you didn't know.
Polar bears have black skin.
Contrary to popular belief, polar bear fur is not white—it's translucent. Not only that, but according to the World Wildlife Fund, the polar bear's skin is actually black. The bears' clear fur and black skin helps them absorb as much sunlight as possible to stay warm. And as you might've guessed, their fur is translucent (as opposed to black) to help them blend in with their snowy environment.
Polar bears aren't the most efficient hunters.
Can you imagine if only two percent of your snack runs resulted in an actual snack? That's what happens to polar bears. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 98 percent of polar bear hunts are unsuccessful. Hunts are particularly challenging if a mother's cubs are in tow, since their loud antics often scare away the seals that are being hunted. To make up for this low success rate, polar bears spend a lot of time on the prowl—some experts guess the bears spend half their lives looking for food.
Polar bears can fast for months at a time.
During the summer, melting ice forces polar bears to find more stable homes away from the sea—and away from their main sources of food, ringed and bearded seals. Fortunately, that's not a huge issue for polar bears, as these animals can fast for approximately eight months before finding a meal becomes crucial. In times of true scarcity, the bears will kill beluga whales and young walruses, or feast on smaller mammals, birds, carcasses, or whatever vegetation they can find.
Grizzly-Polar hybrids exist.
Genetic testing conducted in 2006 found that polar bear-grizzly bear hybrids exist in the wild. Depending on who you ask, these bears are known as grolar bears or pizzly bears. The bears began interbreeding due to low populations of each in certain parts of the world. And, according to the World Wildlife Fund, since female polar bears typically raise these hybrids, they behave more like polar bears than grizzly bears.
There are 19 subpopulations of polar bear.
The approximate 22,000 to 31,000 polar bears on the planet are split between 19 subpopulations, which are spread across six countries—the United States, Russia, Canada, Greenland, Denmark, and Norway. Canada is home to the most polar bears, with 60 to 80 percent of the animal's population living in its icy tundras.
Male polar bears can weigh as much as 10 men.
Typically, male polar bears are at least twice the size of their female counterparts and often weigh up to 1,800 pounds—roughly the same as 10 men, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The largest polar bear ever recorded weighed more than a ton.
According to the Discovery Channel, polar bears are the largest land carnivores on the planet. Male polar bears can grow between eight and nine-feet long, while female polar bears can grow between six and eight-feet long. The largest polar bear ever recorded was a male weighing 2,209 pounds and measuring 12-feet long. That's more than a ton!
Polar bears have viable DNA in their footprints.
Recently, scientists have discovered how to extract a polar bear's DNA from the footprints it leaves in the snow, thanks to research pioneered by the World Wildlife Fund and the DNA specialist firm Spygen. (This was the first-time this CSI-style technique was used on an animal's footprint!) With just two small scoops of the snow surrounding the footprint, scientists can access the polar bear's DNA, along with the DNA of its last meal. Researchers hope this breakthrough can help monitor polar bear populations and polar bear health. Before the discovery, doing so often involved capturing and anesthetizing the animals.
Polar bears don't hunt in the water.
In order to keep their approach as stealthy as possible, polar bears rarely ever venture into the chilly waters to catch their prey. Instead, according to the World Wildlife Fund, they hunt for seals using the ice as a platform and the seals' breathing holes as helpful indicators of where they should wait for their prey to appear. If there are no breathing holes in sight, the polar bear will quietly peer over the edge of an icy platform until they've spotted (or sniffed!) a seal.
Polar bears have an amazing sense of smell.
According to the National Park Service, polar bears have an extraordinary sense of smell. For example, a polar bear can sniff out a seal on the ice from about 20 miles away. They can also use their sense of smell to locate seals under layers of packed snow. Their sense of smell is especially useful for hunting at night and during times of low visibility—something that happens a lot in the Arctic!
A polar bear's paws are nature's ultimate snowshoe.
In order to survive in the Arctic, polar bears have paws that are perfectly adapted to the harsh elements. According to Oceana, their paws are covered in small bumps called papillae, which help them grip the ice and avoid slipping. The tufts of fur between the cushions of their paws also contribute to the paws' traction. On top of all this, the bears have incredibly powerful and sharp claws that can give them further protection on the ice. Plus, their paws are enormous—with the average paw measuring about 12-inches wide.
Polar bears mean a lot to Inuit communities.
In Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people, polar bears are called Nanuq, which roughly translates to an "animal worthy of great respect" or "the ever-wandering one," according to Oceana. "In the past, hunters paid respect to Nanuq's spirit by hanging its skin in an honored place in their home for several days. If the bear was male, the hunter offered the bear's spirit knives and bow-drills; if female, the hunter offered knives, skin-scrapers, and needle cases," says Polar Bears International.
Polar bear cubs are teeny tiny when they're born.
Despite polar bears' incredible size when they're fully grown, they start off incredibly small—about the size of a fully grown hamster, to be exact. Weighing in at around two pounds, polar bear cubs are born blind, toothless, and barely covered in enough fur to insulate them from the cold, according to Oceana. But thanks to their mother's nutritious milk, which contains approximately 31 percent fat, the cubs are ready to play on the ice in no time.
Polar bear cubs stay with their mothers for two years.
After having her cub in November or December, a polar bear mother will spend about four or five months nursing her cubs in a safe and warm den until they acquire the strength to venture out into the tundra. From there, according to National Geographic Kids, the cubs will stay with their mother for another year and a half to learn all of the skills required to survive in the Arctic. If they make it to adulthood, polar bears live around 15 to 20 years.
Polar bears are a "vulnerable" species.
And that's because of climate change. According to a study published in the journal Ecological Applications, the polar bear population just along the southern Beaufort Sea in Alaska and Canada has declined an astonishing 40 percent since 2001. And while it's more difficult to estimate the size of polar bear populations in other, more remote parts of the world, many are stable (not declining), while a few are even increasing in size, according to National Geographic.
However, a U.S. Geological Survey estimates that by 2050, one-third of the worldwide polar bear population will be gone due to the shrinking ice in the regions of the Arctic that they call home.
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