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Don't expect to hear them before you see them. Andy Skillen photo. Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Don’t expect to hear them before you see them. Andy Skillen photo. Seal River Heritage Lodge.

by Vanessa Desorcy

It’s Polar Bear Week!

We’ve seen many, many bears over the years and learned a lot from observing and living among them. Each encounter is slightly different and every bit as special as the ones that came before it. Polar bears are fascinating creatures and seeing them in the wild will never get old. Here are 10 fun facts about the great ice bears!

1. Don’t expect to hear them before you see them

Polar bears are not very vocal mammals. They tend to transmit their intentions through body language or posturing. For example, polar bears will wag their heads from side-to-side when they want to play. Hissing, snorting or a lowered head indicate aggression while a nose-to-nose greeting indicates a request for something from another bear. When they’re angry, they will roar or growl. Thankfully, our expert guides know how to interpret their signals and keep all our guests safe while we’re out walking with these amazing creatures.

2. They’ve got personality!

Polar bears’ personalities will vary due to life experiences, but at their core all bears have the same basic nature. They’re very intelligent, playful, and curious. We’ve never given them reason to be fearful of us, so our mutual curiosity and respect translates into amazing, on-foot encounters.

3. They’re ancient ancestors of the brown bear

Recent findings suggest that polar bears evolved between 350,000 and 6 million years ago from a common ancestor of the brown bear into the polar bears we know today. This evolution made them perfectly suited to survive the harsh environment they call home.

The body of a polar bear is perfectly suited to the seasonal shifts in the Arctic. Their fur covers a thick layer of fat (up to 11.4 cm!), their ears and tails are small to limit heat loss, and their paws allow them to tread on thin ice.

4. Not all who wander are lost

Polar bears don’t have distinct territories, partly because their sea ice habitat is always changing. When a young polar bear grows up, it may travel more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) to set up a home range apart from its mother’s, although sub-adult dispersal remains a scarcely studied topic, because tagging and tracking a quickly maturing animal is tricky.

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.

5. They’ve mastered sleep quality (and quantity)

Humans could learn a thing or two from polar bears about getting enough rest. They get their seven to eight hours at night plus naps during the day. We often see evidence of this in the form of day beds created in snowbanks or tall grass around our ecolodges. Polar bears will usually nap after a meal or a swim, or if it’s too hot, or too blustery — they nap a lot. They can sleep right through a blizzard if they position themselves with their backs to the wind, nestled into a snowy ridge.

Big healthy mom and cubs at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Virginia Huang photo.

Big healthy mom and cubs at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Virginia Huang photo.

6. Females can delay pregnancy

One of the most incredible things about polar bears is their ability to delay implantation of a fertilized egg. Mating takes place on the ice during the spring, between April and June, but the embryo will only implant in the fall and only if the mother has stored up enough fat to sustain her and her cub(s) during the denning season. If the implantation is successful, she will build a maternity den and remain there until March or early April when the proud new momma emerges with her cub(s).

7. They know all about stealth mode

In the fall, seals cut 10 to 15 breathing holes in the ice, using the sharp claws on their fore flippers. Seals keep their breathing holes open all winter long and surface about every five to fifteen minutes at one of the holes or use air pockets trapped under the ice when available.

Polar bears locate these openings with their powerful sense of smell and wait for the seals to emerge. They have to be smart and patient because the wait can be long — sometimes hours, or even days.

Polar bears also stalk ringed seals that are basking on ice by taking advantage of their sleep-wake rhythms. The bear crawls slowly forward and freezes in place when the animal raises its head. At about six meters (20 feet) feet from the seal, the bear uses its explosive speed to pounce, killing the seal before it can escape back into the sea.

8. They’re all about that keto diet

Polar bears definitely got the jump on the keto diet!

A polar bear can eat 100 pounds of blubber in a single sitting, and when the hunting is good they will eat only the fat and leave the carcass for scavengers. Unfortunately for seals, some of the best hunting is done in early summer as the ice breaks up and young seal pups are just learning to swim, making them easy prey.

9. Their fur isn’t white (fur real!)

Polar bear fur is made up of a dense, insulating layer and longer “guard” hairs on top. This dual-layer system prevents almost all heat loss, so much so that adult males can easily become overheated when they run. And, surprise! Their fur isn’t white, it just looks that way. Each hair shaft is pigment-free, transparent, and has a hollow core that scatters and reflects light, making it appear white.

10. Their feet are paws-itively all-purpose

Polar bears paws are very wide, up to 30 cm across, which helps them disperse their weight and travel safely across thin ice. Black footpads on the bottom of each paw are covered by small, soft bumps known as papillae. Papillae grip the ice and keep the bear from slipping. Tufts of fur between its toes and footpads can help with security as well.

Their paws aren’t just good for icy conditions though, they’re also uniquely designed for the water. When swimming, the bear’s front paws act like large paddles and its hind paws serve as rudders.

Polar bears are excellent swimmers. Steve Herring photo. Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Polar bears are excellent swimmers. Steve Herring photo. Seal River Heritage Lodge.

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