Polar Bear

Meet the polar bear, an icon of the Arctic. Back to animal directory.

LIFE SPAN: 40 plus years in captivity.

RANGE: Polar bears live in the Northern Hemisphere on Arctic sea ice, with time spent on land in coastal areas as sea ice recedes and returns seasonally. In some areas, the ice decline forces bears on land in search of new hunting grounds. Polar bears are found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia.

SIZE: Male polar bears may weigh up to 1,500 pounds. Females are smaller, weighing up to 600 pounds.

(Video above is Point of View POV footage from a collar on a female on the ice of the Beaufort Sea. This footage was gathered by USGS to research how bears spend time as sea ice declines. Learn more at Polar Bears International. See bottom of page for video credits.)

PHYSICAL FEATURES: Polar bears are thought to have evolved from brown bears close to 110,000 years ago. They have many specialized adaptations to live in a cold, icy environment: A dense coat of fur, short ears to reduce heat loss, bumpy papillae on foot pads for traction, up to 6 inches of fat covering their entire body for use as energy if the bear must go without food, an incredible sense of smell used to sniff the scent of seals and their puffs of breath on the air from miles away.

FOOD: Ringed seals are a polar bear's primary and preferred prey in Alaskan waters. Polar bears display an amazing ability to stalk seals and wait patiently for them to surface through their breathing holes or leads (open areas) in the sea ice. Polar bears need sea ice to effectively hunt these seals, using the ice as a hunting platform. Without it, the seals have the advantage in the water. On the seal side, they need the sea ice for pupping and hauling out of the water. The ice is a critical piece for both species and it is in rapid decline. Without the presence of good quality and quantity of sea ice, polar bears are forced to move inland and feed on small mammals, eggs, berries and vegetation. The act of foraging for this land-based diet is very costly in terms of energy given the low nutritional value it provides for a polar bear.

BEHAVIOR: Polar bears spend winter on the ice pack hunting seals, so they do not hibernate. Only pregnant females den to have cubs.  Most dens are on land, however some are found on permanent sea ice. Inside the dens, 1 to 3 cubs (usually 2) are born in December and they stay with their mother for up to 3 years. They must learn how to hunt and protect themselves by watching her every move. Polar bears are able to sprint up to 25 miles an hour, swim up to 60 miles without rest and smell food/scents from a mile away on tundra.

CONSERVATION: Polar bears are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). The Act states that polar bears cannot be hunted by non-Natives and subsistence is regulated. Researchers are studying the behavior of polar bears, effects of human presence and den distribution to limit development in sensitive areas. Much research is done using GPS tracking devices on collars (scientists dart bears from helicopters to place collars on them). One female was noted to have walked entirely around the northern pole of the world in one year! Polar bears are now a threatened species due to the rapid loss of their sea ice habitat caused by global climate change. The zoo is very active in working with Polar Bears InternationalU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and USGS Alaska Science Center in promoting polar bear and sea ice conservation through education programs and other partnerships. In fact, the Alaska Zoo is the only organization permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be a first responder for polar bears who are impacted by emergencies on the North Slope in Alaska. We have a cub holding facility, a new Transition Center, off-exhibit holding areas and extra dens for additional bears being housed as part of emergency response. We work with Alaska Clean Seas to accomplish our training and to meet our equipment needs for first response. We are proud to be on the front lines for polar bears. They need our help and we are there to meet the call.

(The video to the above right shows POV camera footage of a female polar bear spending her time on land while waiting for the sea ice to form near Akimiski Island, James Bay, Ontario. Researchers found she spent 78% of her time resting, 8% eating berries, 4% walking and 10% drinking or grooming. To read more, visit Polar Bears International.)

POV VIDEO CREDITS: The project is a team effort involving Polar Bears International, the USGS, explore.org, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, York University, San Diego Zoo Institute of Conservation Research, Mehdi Bakhtiari at Exeye (inventor and source of the cams), and Adam Ravetch at Arctic Bear Productions.