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Animal Facts: Polar bear

  • Jun 06, 2019
  • 411 words
  • 2 minutes
Well-known for their iconic white fur, the polar bear is one of the most widely recognized bears in the world. (Photo: Liz Tran/Can Geo Photo Club)
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As one of Canada’s most recognizable animals, the polar bear is the largest bear in the world and the top predator in the Arctic. 

Image: Chris Brackley
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Fast Facts

Common name: Polar bear

Scientific nameUrsus maritimus

Inuktut name: ᓇᓄᖅ (nanuq)

Type: Mammal

Diet: Carnivore

Group name: Celebration, pack or sleuth/sloth

Weight:  408 to 726 kilograms

Height: 1.3 to 2.4 metres (at shoulder) 

COSEWIC Status: Special concern

Did you know?

Polar bear fur is not actually white. It’s transparent, and only looks white because it reflects light. Here’s another surprise: polar bears have black skin under their fur, which helps capture and retain heat from the sun.

Physical characteristics and behaviour

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 on the marine environment for survival. It is the largest land carnivore in North America, and its long body, neck and skull distinguish it from other types of bears.

The polar bear is well adapted to life in the extremes of the Arctic. Its distinctive white coat acts as camouflage in the snow and ice. That’s important since it makes them hard to see when stalking seals. Meanwhile, the soles of the polar bear’s feet have small bumps and cavities that provide suction, preventing the bear from slipping on the icy terrain. 

Polar bears are excellent swimmers. They have been known to swim up to 10 kilometres per hour and farther than 90 kilometres without rest. They can hold their breath underwater for more than a minute.

Diet

Polar bears spend most of their lives on sea ice, which they use as a platform to hunt their favourite food: ringed seals. A keen sense of smell is key to the polar bear’s success as a hunter — they can detect a seal’s breathing hole in the ice from up to a kilometre away. However, due to their reliance on ice to hunt for food, polar bears are especially vulnerable to climate change-caused sea ice melt. 

Habitat and distribution

More than two-thirds of the world’s polar bears are found in the Canadian Arctic, 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.

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