On the very edge of the North American Continent, you will find the home of the Polar Bear. In this article, I will try to peel off the layer of myth and misunderstanding on this complex creature and to understand their personality better. Polar Bears are unique to the Arctic or North Polar region of the planet. Their ancient ancestors are the Brown or Grizzly Bears. Remarkably, the skin of a Polar Bear is black and hollow white hair follicle fibbers conduct warmth down to the skin.
In a small community in Barter Island, on the edge of the Beaufort Sea is inhabited by fewer than 300 residents, mostly Inupiat Eskimo. The Inupiat Eskimo calls this island home, but they are not alone on this frigid coastline. They share this land with another great hunter, the Polar Bear.
Winter Is Coming
While the Black Bear and Brown Bear have started their winter hibernation cycle, the Polar Bear senses the change in season and are anxious for the chill to set in. Polar Bears are ice-loving creatures and from an early age are drawn to it. What’s fascinating to me about these Polar Bears is that they’re so finely tuned and adapted to life on ice. A male Polar Bear can weight upwards of 1500 pounds and stand at ten feet tall, not something I would want to tackle!
When the Polar Bears are adults, they depend upon ice to hunt. Unlike Brown Bears, Polar Bears are highly specialized carnivores and hunt almost exclusively one animal, Seals. A seal weighing seven hundred pounds can easily be dragged out of their breeding hole and kill it instantly with just one crushing bite from its powerful jaws. By October the Arctic coastal Ocean has frozen over, but when a late winter comes, it could go into November. If the Ocean doesn’t freeze then, the Bears are trapped on land and unable to hunt.
While the rest of the Polar Bears are anxiously waiting for sea ice to form, pregnant females are waiting for enough snow to dig their maternity dens. Many females return to the same area of which they came from to raise their cubs. Female Polar Bear will usually give birth to two cubs but sadly six out of ten will die within their first year due to starvation, accidents or predation.
The Most Predatory Of All Bears
A Polar Bear can smell your scent from far away by raising their nose up in the air, so keep as far away as you can if you don’t have a safe place to go in case of an attack. These White Bears are the most predatory type of bear. They are capable of as high a speeds as the Grizzly Bear at thirty-five miles per hour, so the chances of outrunning them are slim to none, even if you’re Hussein Bolt!
They are an inquisitive animal; their entire livelihood is to survive in the cold and hunting Seals, making them the utmost experts of Arctic life. If the warming trend continues, however, they will have another thing to adapt to, competition. As the temperature warms up, the Polar Bear habitat gets visitors from other animals that will eat the little food Polar Bears have. If they see a human, the beautiful White Bear will fight each other to get you and eat you, so stay inside, especially after dark.
Encounter With a Polar Bear
There are towns in Northern Canada and Alaska that the Polar Bear population is higher than the human population. The bear encounters are also becoming more frequent due to climate change because as the Arctic circle become warmer and the freeze up will occur later in the winter forcing the Bears in human communities.
When problems between humans and Polar Bears do occur, it’s usually in the Autumn months when the animal goes into town looking for food. When confronted by a human, most Bears would instead go the other way but driven by hunger; they become bold. If they decide to attack and eat a person, they will. An encounter between a human and a Polar Bear is very likely to end with one or the other dead.
Most residents if not all in these towns own a firearm, and will only use it as a last resort. The vast majority of the people living among these beautiful White Bear would never want to destroy them, but sometimes it does warrant it.
Efforts to Avoid Contact with a Polar Bear
In the town of Churchill located in northern Manitoba, the Polar Bear is a constant presence. In the flesh or its likeness, it permeates the awareness of the people. The Bear is a source of civic pride, but it also looms as a threat to lives. Their size and outdoor activities make children the most vulnerable to marauding bears.
Face to face encounters between bear and human are not uncommon. Polar Bears don’t seem aggressive or dangerous. They don’t stakeout or defend a territory because they are secure in their role as Lords of their domain. Polar Bears are long-lived creatures and very intelligent to the point that they learn from experience and likely that they recognize one another and play with the same “friends” season after season.
Most of the bears that get into trouble with Naturel Resources Officers are sub adults who have not yet become skillful hunters. A starving bear has nothing to lose and will risk anything to feed itself. Most of these troublesome bears are two years old, and they are what teenagers would be to humans. They are the ones that are more apt to be involved in a Polar Bear attack.
Learning About Polar Bears at a Young Age
School children are taught at a young age on the subject of Polar Bears. Typically a Natural Resources Officer would go into the schools and give a presentation on what to do and what not to do when meeting up with a Polar Bear. These are some of the things Children would learn at school, and these are also things that might prove useful to you as a reader if you someday go off on a trek through the Arctic Circle.
- Never explore areas where there would be a strong or bad smell. Bears in general like garbage so if you smell garbage, the bear will smell it also, and that’s where the bear will go.
- Report any and all Polar Bear sightings by calling the “Bear Line” and a Naturel Resources officer will answer the phone and remedy the situation by chasing the bear away. Never hesitate to call 911 if there is an immediate emergency. If you’re not a local, you will need to call 911 directly, and they will direct the call to the principal natural resources office.
- Be careful when going for a walk where there are brushes. Many fatalities occur when a person accidentally stumbles across bears sleeping in the brush.
- Never run away from a Polar Bear, instead, stroll backward until you find a safe place to hide.
Polar Bear Alert Program
To eliminate fatal encounters between humans and Polar Bears the Canadian Province of Manitoba’s department of natural resources has established “The Polar Bear Alert.” Each fall when the Polar Bears starts moving towards town, a control zone is established. Bears found within the zone are captured and kept in a holding facility popularly known as “The Polar Bear Jail.”
Before the Polar Bear alert program had begun in 1985, approximately twelve bears were destroyed every year in defense of human life or property. Since then the number has dropped dramatically. These days the bear body count ranges from zero to only one or two killed.
Visiting a Place Like Churchill
For anyone that wants to visit Churchill and see the Polar Bears in their natural habitat only has two ways to get there. No roads are leading from Churchill to the rest of the world. You can either get there by plane or by train (As of July 2017 the Train is not un use for an indefinite amount of time due to rail damage.) The train is a grueling two-day journey from the provincial capital of Winnipeg. People from all over the world boost Churchill’s economy by visiting and going on Polar Bear tours.
The peak bear season is October and November, and the visitors they attract are seen as mostly good for the town. The best and safest way to visit a Polar Bear up close is from a Tundra Buggy. These monster machines take visitors onto Cape Churchill, in the heart of Polar Bear country. Here is a link for more information on these types of excursions.
Ancient Polar Bear Myths
Through the endless Arctic night, the ancient people would huddle around a flickering oil lamp and share tales about these mystical creatures. They are a creature of the mystic strength of epic proportions. The old man, ancestor, teacher, the bringer of winter “Cuckoo Gliac” the ten-legged bear beast. Our fascination with bears lies deep within our human experience. Of all the ancient animal Gods, only bears were unlimited in its powers.
Myth of Kinship
In Bears, we may instantly recognize kinship. A fellow being that brings obligations, commitments, familiar mannerisms and need to dominate his living space. Polar Bears have a complex social structure. Females will aggressively defend their cubs against any intruders, and they are especially wary of large males who are known to kill and eat cubs. It is not uncommon that you would have a male Polar Bear weighing over a thousand pounds be persistently pursued by a female about one-third his size. It would seem that the male could easily overpower and kill the spirit of the female but instead, he runs away.
Myth of Polar Bears and The Yeti
There’s an ancient myth that the Polar Bear and the Yeti (Abominable Snowman) are of the same family. This tale could be proven correct from advance DNA testing. A hair sample found in the Himalayan regions were genetically wholly matched the sample of an ancient Polar Bear jawbone in Norway. The ancient jawbone is possibly dating back a hundred and twenty thousand years to a time when Polar Bears and Brown Bears were separating as different species. Scientists believe the mysterious animal known as the Yeti in the Himalayas could be a hybrid of both. This would mirror that of mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who found a three hundred Tibetan manuscript saying the Yeti was a variety of bear.
Polar Bear Deterrents
You can use these products to protect yourself if you happen to be face to face with a Polar Bear, or worst, involved in a polar bear attack. This is a list of nonlethal items. You can click on the items to view the current Amazon prices.
Keep in mind that these items are not entirely effective against every bear in every situation and it should not make you less careful in avoiding bear conflicts. Some of these products are also potentially dangerous so use extreme caution. If you are using a chemical repellent, try to stay upwind of the bear before using it. If the wind catches it and some of the spray mist goes into your eyes and mouth you will be completely helpless. Im not sure if bears, in general, like hot sauce so just to be sure, don’t spray yourself!
Entering Polar Bear Country Alone
If you’re going to be visiting Polar Bear country alone, and not hire a guide of some sorts, here is a summary of some of the things we touched on and a few more tidbits of info you should keep in mind. Polar Bears inhabit an environment that often has minimal cover, and usually, an encounter can be prevented when the bear is spotted at a distance. Be alert and aware of your surroundings.
- Scan all around with binoculars at regular intervals.
- Watch for signs such as tracks, droppings, diggings, wildlife carcasses and polar bear dens.
- Travel in daylight and avoid areas of restricted visibility.
- Be especially careful in areas along the coast, where a polar bear may be hiding behind boulders, pressure ridges (pushed up sea ice), driftwood or vegetation.
- Travel in groups and stay together to increase your safety. The larger the group, the higher the chances of deterring a bear.
Be careful along the coastline because this is where the bears will inhabit in the summer season when most of the ice has melted.
Avoid A Polar Bear Den
Unlike the Black Bear and The Grizzly Bear, Polar Bears do not hibernate, and their den is always active.
A pregnant female excavates a maternity den in snow drifts that are on wind protected slopes of coastal hills and valleys so be careful around very tall snow drifts. These types of dens are only typically occupied from fall to early spring, and they are very inconspicuous, but you will sometimes see bear tracks leading to and from their dens. You might also be able to spot ventilation holes.
A Temporary den is excavated by males, females, and females with cubs in snow drifts or pressure ridges. These types of dens are typically used for a few days, but they can also be used for a few months on occasion for a resting place. They are however used as a temporary shelter against adverse weather conditions most of the times.
A Summer Retreat Den are excavated in the remaining snow banks or into the permafrost during the open water season. Both male and female Polar Bears of all age groups use these types of dens to keep cool and avoid being infested by insects. The Summer retreat dens are located on higher elevations, on snowfields and glaciers, or the valleys leading up to them.
Avoid Camping Under The Stars
Never camp under the stars in areas where the Polar Bear inhabit. You also need to avoid camping in tents whenever possible since a bear would be alerted to your scent and rip your tent apart. If you have no other choices and you’re stuck outside overnight then you should avoid tenting on beaches, islands, along coastlines, and on travel routes. Polar Bears often travel along shores and navigate using points of land and rocky islets.
Before setting up your campsite, look for any signs indicating Polar Bear activity such as tracks. Make sure to camp far enough inland on a bluff with a good view of the surrounding terrain and not a place where there are visual impediments or blind corners. Surviving a Polar Bear attack is slim to none if you’re sleeping.
Don’t sleep in an open tent because to a Polar Bear, you will mostly look like a seal and that’s the last thing you want to look like in these parts. If possible, set up your tents in a line rather than a circle and maintain at least 5 meters between them. This is a good tip to avoid having the bear feel surrounded and threatened if they end up in your campsite.
You also need a few “Bear-Proof Storage Containers” to eliminate or at least reduce any food and cooking odors that would lead a Polar Bear directly to your site.
Recorded Polar Bear Attacks
Fox News reported in July of 2017 that there were only 73 reported polar bear attacks on humans between 1870 and 2014, according to a study published this month in Wildlife Society Bulletin. But 20% of those attacks happened in just the last five years of the research, and Alaska Dispatch News reports researchers have found a correlation between the dramatic increase in polar bear attacks and the decline in Arctic sea ice.
They went on by saying that from 1960 to 2009, there was an average of 9.4 polar bear attacks per decade; there were 15 from 2010 to 2014 alone. Signs point to the increase in polar bear attacks being tied to a lack of sea ice, from which polar bears typically hunt for seals.
Here is a quote from “Polar Bear Science” that sums up very well the numbers of Polar bear Attacks. “I think it’s kind of delusional to suggest that a list of recorded attacks, spanning 145 years throughout the Arctic (including Russia), have captured more than a fraction of all actual polar bear attacks; given that many Arctic communities didn’t have reliable communications in the 1970s (let alone the 1870s). How about all the Inuit and Siberian hunters over the years who failed to return home because they were killed and eaten by a polar bear, unbeknownst to anyone?”
Polar Bear Attacks at the Zoo
Even in the limited confines of a zoo, there could still be an incident revolving Polar Bear Attacks against human visitors or workers.
Here is an excerpt below from the UK Telegraph-Journal.
The keepers’ bravery was praised after they dragged the 32-year-old German mother out of a moat for the animals. They had to shove the animal out of the way after one of four polar bears dived into the water and attacked her, inflicting severe bites on her legs and arms.”
The Climat Change Vulnerability of Polar Bears
This section is not a debate on climate change or discussion on who is responsible. The fact is that the ecosystem of the Arctic is steadily changing and it’s affecting the lively hood of Polar Bears immensely. This is a list of the things that would have a more significant effect on a Polar Bear as a result of climate change.
1- Relying on Environmental Cues for Reproduction
The female Polar Bear’s breeding occurs from March to May and usually gives birth between late November to early January. As sea ice is decreasing, females are now making their denning sites farther inland, and as a result, they are now expending more energy reaching these sites thus erecting their fitness and denning success. When the sea ice breaks up too early, females emerging with their cubs might be forced to spend the summer on land, where food is scarce.
2- Relying on Environmental Cues for Migration
The Polar Bear’s migration cycle has been slowly changing as a result of sea ice dynamics. It’s already been documented that Polar Bears that spend their summer on land are arriving earlier and departing later in response to these sea ice changes.
Over the past 50 years, there has been substantial warming in the Arctic regarding the changes in temperature. Arctic sea ice extent in September, the month of each year’s minimum degree, has declined 13.4% per decade from 1979 through 2015. Future warming is projected to be highest in the Arctic, well above that of the expected global average. There will be further thinning, and retreat of Arctic sea ice and a nearly ice-free Arctic in the summer (September) is likely before mid-century.
3- Ecologically Connected Diet
The Polar Bear’s primary prey is the ringed seal, and they are both intimately connected ecologically. A five hundred pound Polar Bear would need around five pounds of fat per day, and they typically get this from the seals for a brief period in the spring during the pupping seal season. Seals will replenish the fat reserves they used up during the winter months.
A pregnant female may not have fed for eight months and as a result can be opportunistic eaters. When this is the case they would occasionally feed on belugas, narwhals, walrus, birds and their eggs, animal carcasses, kelp, garbage and even desperately feed on other Polar Bears.
4- Polar Bears are Habitat Specialist
Polar Bears rely heavily on the sea ice for hunting, mating, traveling and also maternal dens in some area. They are most abundant in shallow water areas near shore, or near the highly productive sea ice areas over the continental shelves. When sea ice retreats north in the summer, polar bears either follow the ice or go on land until the sea ice returns.
Over most of their range, they remain on the sea ice year-round; however, they are spending increasing amounts of time on land in the summer due to declining sea ice. Even those that stay on the ground for more extended periods still depend on the sea ice for hunting. Over the past hundreds of millennia, polar bears have been exposed to temperatures higher than those they presently experience, and also to extreme periods of cooling, but there hasn’t been the ice-free Arctic in the last 800,000 years.
5- Lower Reproductive Rates
Average litter size range from one to four cubs but more often they give birth to two cubs. They usually breed every three years and keeps their cubs with them for approximately two and a half years. Unfortunately, the cub mortality rate can be as high as two-thirds because if the female body mass drops below 420 pounds, she will be unable to reproduce successfully.
Five things you didn’t know about Polar Bears
Here are some fun facts about the Polar Bear. These top 5 things you didn’t know about polar bears may surprise you, and teach you how they are so different from the other Bear species.
1. Two-thirds of all Polar Bears in the World are found in Canada
There are an estimated 20,000 – 25,000 polar bears on the planet, split into 19 sub-populations over five arctic regions: Canada, Russia, Alaska, Greenland, and Norway. Of these areas, 13 of the sub-populations, about 70% of all Polar Bears are in Canada.
2. Their Skin is Black, and Their tongue is Dark
Polar bears have black skin, which helps to keep them warm by absorbing heat from the suns rays. Even their tongues are dark, often ranging from blue, to purple and sometimes black.
3. The Fur of Polar Bears Is Not White
If there is one thing that you think you know about polar bears, it’s that their fur is white. But really, it’s not. Technically speaking, The fur of a Polar Bear is colorless. Each strand of hair is transparent and pigment-free with a hollow core which reflects light, giving the impression of being white in specific areas such as on snow.
4. They fast during the summer
The Northern Canadian Polar bear population is forced on land during the summer months as the sea ice melts. This means that during the time the polar bears are on land (roughly late June to late November) they don’t have access to their primary food source, which is seals. Although polar bears may find carrion or other items to eat during their time on land, for the most part, these are required to fast for several months until they can return to the ice in late November to resume hunting.
5. A polar bears health determines pregnancies
Polar bear physiology is a fantastic thing. Polar bears are one species that benefit from what is known as “delayed implantation.” This means that although polar bears mate between April and June on the sea ice, the fertilized eggs will not implant until late in the autumn, and will only implant if the bear has gained enough weight during her hunting season.
This is quite beneficial for females who did not have a successful hunting season and thus would not physically be able to support a pregnancy. Once a pregnancy has started, the female does not return to the sea ice but instead moves inland to find a maternity den. During her entire time in her den, four to eight months the female Polar Bear does not eat or drink. When she finally emerges with her cubs, she leads them to the sea ice so she can break her long fast by hunting seals.
I hope you found this article insightful and that you will use extra precautions while visiting areas where you may encounter a Polar Bear. Whether you’re visiting them at the zoo or in the Arctic Circle, do not go near them and never let your guard down.
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