Fast Facts: Polar bear

Species name: Ursus maritimus
Average weight: 400 - 600 kg (males)
150 - 250 kg (females)
Life expectancy: approximately 25 years

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The polar bear is the only bear that is considered a marine mammal because it depends upon the marine environment for survival.


The polar bear's Latin name, ursus maritimus, means “sea bear.” It is the only bear that is considered a marine mammal because it depends upon the marine environment for survival. It is the largest land carnivore in North America. Its long body, neck and skull distinguish it from other types of bears.

The polar bear is adapted to life in the extremes of the Arctic. Its distinctive white coat acts as camouflage in the snow and ice and it uses this camouflage to hide from the threat of human hunters as well as in stalking and hunting seals. The thick fur has glossy guard hairs and a dense layer of underfur over a thick layer of fat beneath its skin, which helps keep it warm. The soles of the polar bear's feet have small bumps and cavities that provide suction and prevent it from slipping on the icy terrain.

As a carnivore, the polar bear has physical attributes to accommodate its diet. It has large, jagged canine teeth and grinding surfaces in its cheek teeth. It also has large, strong paws for hunting seals in holes in the ice. The claws are sharp, straight, non-retractable and brownish in colour.


The polar bear lives in the Arctic terrain in vast areas of ice surrounding open water. It uses the ice as a platform to hunt its favorite food, ringed seals, which are a type of seal commonly found in the Arctic. A polar bear uses its sense of smell for hunting and can detect a seal's breathing hole in the ice from up to a kilometre away. It will also hunt other types of seals and occasionally walrus, belugas and narwhals.

Because of the difficulty in finding food in the harsh environment of the Arctic, the polar bear has the ability to slow down its metabolism to conserve its energy after seven to 10 days of being unable to find food. It can sustain this state until food becomes available again.

Polar bears are excellent swimmers. The bear's layer of fat allows it to stay warm in the frigid Arctic waters and also helps it remain afloat. It uses its powerful front paws as oars and allow its rear paws to trail behind and act as rudders. Polar bear's have been known to swim up to 10 kilometres per hour and for more than 90 kilometres without a rest. It can hold its breath underwater for more than a minute.


The polar bear population is estimated to be between 25,000 and 40,000 worldwide, with approximately 13,000 to 15,000 living in Canada.

In Canada, polar bears can be found from James Bay to northern Ellesmere Island, and from Labrador to the Alaskan border. Churchill, Manitoba, on the western coast of Hudson Bay, is one of the three largest polar bear maternity denning areas in the world. Canada is one of five "polar bear nations," along with the United States (Alaska), Russia, Denmark (Greenland) and Norway.

A polar bear's territory depends upon the break-up and freezing patterns of the sea ice and the bear's ability to travel the ice floes in search of food. If it has access to ice and seals, the polar bear won't travel far and its territory can be very small.

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