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How Do Polar Bears Survive the Cold?

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: October 3, 2017
How Do Polar Bears Survive the Cold?

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are not just one of the most beautiful animals in the world. They are also extremely interesting from a scientific perspective, as these bears live in the Arctic Circle and thus are adapted to survive in one of the most extreme climates in the world.

Have you ever wondered how do polar bears survive the cold of the Arctic Ocean? Scientists have spent many years researching how polar bears maintain their body heat and how their fur works. If you want to get to know some polar bear facts, stay with us at AnimalWised and read on.

You may also be interested in: A Polar Bear's Diet

What are polar bears? Some basic facts

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus), also known as white bears, are carnivorous mammals. They belong to the Ursidae family, which also includes the following species:

  • Giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
  • Spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus)
  • Sloth bear (Melursus ursinus)
  • Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus)
  • Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus)
  • American black bear (Ursus americanus)
  • Brown bear (Ursus arctos)

As you can see, polar bears belong to the same genus as black and brown bears, which means they're more closely related to these species. However, polar bears have a more elongated body and more shapely legs.

Polar bears can weigh between 150 and 700 kilos (330 to 1540 lb), and they are about 1.20 to 1.60 m (3'1'' to 5'2'') tall at the shoulders, although some specimens are much taller. Their tails are actually quite short.

Female polar bears are much smaller than males, almost half their size. However, when they are pregnant they try and store large amounts of fat, since this is what they survive on during their pregnancy and the first months of the cubs' lives.

Although polar bears can walk on two feet, they are clumsy; these bears feel more comfortable walking on all fours and running, and especially swimming. In fact, they can swim incredibly long distances over the course of days; they average at 155 km (96 mi), which is an amazing feat. They are considered marine mammals due to the amount of time they spend in the water.

Out of all habitats, their favorite is the sea ice on the Arctic Circle, where there are many small archipelagos.

As mentioned earlier, polar bears are carnivores, and they have 42 impressive teeth to prove it. When they rise to the land, it's usually to hunt. Their most common prey includes the different seals of the Northern Hemisphere, belugas and young walruses.

How Do Polar Bears Survive the Cold? - What are polar bears? Some basic facts

How have polar bears adapted to survive the cold?

As you can imagine, one factor that allows polar bears to survive the cold is their double fur coat. But this explanation is too simple.

First of all, there is a a thick layer of fat underneath a polar bear's skin that protects it from the cold. Then, as in other mammals of this area, its fur is divided into two sections: An inner coat and an outer one. The outer layer is thicker and rougher to protect the softer, shorter and denser inner layer. As you will see, a polar bear's fur is considered a marvel in terms of attracting and retaining heat.

Another factor that helps polar bears conserve heat is their compact ears and small tail. By having this morphological structure they avoid unnecessary heat loss.

How Do Polar Bears Survive the Cold? - How have polar bears adapted to survive the cold?

Do polar bears survive the cold thanks to their fur?

Although it seems logical, it has not been proved how exactly do polar bears manage to live in such extreme temperatures, although most scientific theories focus on how they attract and maintain heat.

The polar bear's fur is both hollow and transparent. The outer layer looks white because the surrounding environment is reflected on its fur. This is particularly interesting, because their skin is in fact black.

The coat has the main function of retaining the heat from the sun. Some theories say that the polar bear's fur traps air bubbles in the environment; these bubbles then become a protective coating that protects the polar bear from the cold. Another theory suggests that the polar bear's skin emits electromagnetic waves that warm the bear up.

It can be agreed that polar bears have more problems with overheating than with freezing. One of the greatest threats to this species is the warming of our planet by pollution.

How Do Polar Bears Survive the Cold? - Do polar bears survive the cold thanks to their fur?

Other adaptations of the polar bear

Polar bears do not only have to live with the cold; the ice and the lack of fresh water in the Arctic are also tricky to deal with. Some other adaptations of the polar bear that help them survive include:

  • Morphology: Their large feet and claws help them run and walk on slippery ice, as they can distribute their weight and hang on better.
  • Smell: The sense of smell of polar bears is extremely good, which helps them locate food at very long distances, even buried under the snow. They can wait in silence for hours by a seal's breathing hole to catch it.
  • Diet: While young polar bears do eat meat, older ones eat only the skin and blubber of their prey, as those parts are easier to digest.
  • Molting: Polar bears molt in the summer, but their seasonal coat is also white.
  • Hibernation: Polar bears do not hibernate, except in the case of pregnant females. In fact, unlike other Arctic animals they do not eat more in the summer, as there is less ice for them to hunt.
  • Sexual dimorphism: Besides their larger size, male polar bears have longer hair on their paws, which have the same function as a lion's mane - attracting females.

As you can see, there are many answers to how do polar bears survive the cold of the Arctic. However, they might not survive us humans; learn all about climate change and do your best to preserve the environment and the water levels as they are now.

If you want to read similar articles to How Do Polar Bears Survive the Cold?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

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Carrick
When does polar bear fur come off
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Carrick,

Polar bears shed for up to several weeks in late spring (May/June time). Hope this helps.

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