5 Things You Didn't Know About Polar Bears

October 28, 2019 Special Guest Author

Guest post by Thea Bechshoft, staff scientist at Polar Bears International

Polar bear questions have been a huge part of my life for the past 15 years. Whenever I'm invited to speak on polar bears, which is fairly often, I'm asked all manner of questions: "How old do polar bears get?," "How do they smell?",  "How many are there?".  These are among the most common things people wonder about about these majestic animals especially when we’re in beautiful polar bear country, as I was recently on an Arctic Expedition with Quark Expeditions.
 

Thea Bechshoft, Polar Bears International. Photo: KT Miller, Polar Bears International

The chance of seeing polar bears in the wild lures many travelers to the pristine Arctic. Photo: Nicki Souness.

I love revisiting old questions, because I get to share new and updated information on polar bears. But, believe it or not, there's a handful of questions that have not come up during my speaking engagements and polar bear presentations, whether on expedition ships in the Arctic or other events attended by people who are eager to learn about polar bears.  

So, I've decided to answer "5 questions I'm never asked about polar bears":

1. Why don’t all polar bears come up close to the ship to investigate?

Passengers on a voyage through Svalbard, Norway, watch a polar bear approach their expedition ship. Photo: Acacia Johnson.

Polar bears are highly individual, very intelligent creatures. How they react to any given situation depends to a large extent on their previous life experiences: have they ever encountered a ship before? And if they have, how did that encounter go? 

A bear’s inclination to come closer to an expedition ship is often also influenced by  its age, sex and general health (especially body condition) and an assessment of whether it will be worth the potential risk to approach the “newcomer” to investigate. To maximize your chances of seeing a bear up close from the safety of the ship, there are two important rules to follow: be patient and be quiet!

2. Could we move penguins to the Arctic for the polar bears to eat?

A polar bear catches its meal from the edge of the Arctic sea ice. Photo: Acacia Johnson

I’m often asked whether moving polar bears to the South Pole could be a way to help them (it is not). However, no one so far has suggested to me that we introduce penguins in the north. My answer is: it would be a very short-sighted and non-sustainable solution, but absolutely we could (at least until the South Pole runs out of penguins). In fact, some Norwegians already did this back in the 1930s—not all the way to the North Pole but to northern Norway. However, the problem on the mainland was the same as it would be further north: out of the water, penguins are not evolved to defend themselves against predators. Unlike the Antarctic, the Arctic has plenty of land- and ice-based predators, such as arctic foxes, polar bears, and predatory birds, who would  be more than happy to eat penguins as well as their eggs. In other words, if we wanted to move penguins to the North Pole in order to help hungry bears, we would have to transfer a huge number of them every single year!
 

3. What do newborn polar bear cubs look like?

Baby polar bears  can fit into the palm of a human hand at birth.  Photo: Grahm S. Jones/Columbus  Zoo & Aquarium

Thanks to the mama bear's fatty milk, polar bear cubs often gain 10-15 kg  (22 to 33 pounds) during their first three months.  Photo: Acacia Johnson

A newborn polar bear cub fits in the palm of a hand, weighing only about 500-800 grams (1 to less than 2 lbs). The cub’s eyes are closed, it has no teeth yet, and its skin is pink, covered with a fine coat of soft white (non-pigmented) hair. All of this changes over the next few months that the cub spends in the maternity den with its mother. Drinking the highly fatty polar bear milk, the cub gains 10-15 kg  (22 to 33 pounds) over the three-month period, opens its eyes and starts exploring the den, while its teeth start growing and its skin turns black.


4.  Do polar bears scavenge?

Polar bears are impressive hunters, but yes, they also scavenge if the opportunity presents itself. Staying alive in the high Arctic can be challenging. So, of course, most polar bears will usually investigate anything that smells remotely edible. This includes another bear’s leftover seal bits, stranded whale carcasses, bone piles left behind by human hunters, dry foods found in cabins, styrofoam, motor oil, and skidoo seats, just to name a few. While opportunistic scavenging in general is a good strategy for polar bears in between hunting, eating non-prey items obviously isn’t healthy for the bears, as such food holds no nutritional value (but plenty of toxic chemicals).

5. Do polar bears hunt continuously? Do they start hunting again immediately after killing and eating a seal?

Polar bears must strike when the opportunity (in other words, a seal) presents itself. Their search for food is constant. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Polar bears are always on the lookout for their next meal. Being opportunistic and always ready to hunt is the key to keeping a polar bear chubby and healthy throughout the year. However, contrary to what is often shown in wildlife documentaries, polar bears spend a lot of time waiting, resting, and sleeping (particularly during the lean summer months when access to seals is restricted by the lack of a good sea ice hunting platform). Besides longer periods of sleep – up to 8 hours – polar bears will also often take shorter naps, especially after a good meal.

For more information on polar bears, visit Polar Bears International.

For trips to the Arctic to see polar bears in their natural habitat, visit Quark Expeditions.

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