Polar Bear. History and Identification. Characteristics

History. The polar bear, has, by the remoteness of his habitat, been comparatively unmolested by man. Only the Eskimos esteem his flesh as food. But the coarsely furred pelt is a prized trophy. With the advent of air travel, the great white bear lost much of its protection. Its hunting is strictly regulated in American waters by Alaskan and federal law. Fewer than 200 permits are issued annually by the Alaska Game and Fish Department. Similar protection is afforded the bear by Canada.

Because of its wide-ranging habits and a circumpolar range, the polar bear is difficult to census. It has declined somewhat in recent years because of increased hunting. There are probably around 2,000 on the northern coast of Alaska.

Identification. This monarch of the ice is one of the largest of the surviving members of the bear family, with big males often weighing 1500 to 1600 pounds, and the females scaling from 850 to 900 pounds. The male often reaches 9 feet in length, while the average female is about 6 feet 6 inches long. The record polar bear, killed by Captain Bob Bartlett in 1914, had a skin which measured 12 feet in length.

In the winter this bear's coat blends perfectly with the white ice floes. In the spring he begins to shed this white mantle, assuming a yellowish coat, but his camouflage remains excellent, for he merges with the yellowed ice in the summer pack. The general appearance of the polar bear is somewhat different from that of the other big bears, not only by reason of his white pelage but by his longer neck, comparatively small head, narrow skull, and small molars for grinding. His feet are broad and hairy, and serve as natural snowshoes, enabling him to move over the snow with comparative ease. (See Plate II, p. 29.) His claws are long and sharp, because of the honing they receive when he moves over the hard ice, and they are black-tipped, as is his nose.

Polar bear

Like other members of his family, his vision is not good, and his hearing is little better. His acute sense of smell, however, more than atones for his other sensory defects, and he can pick up the scent of a stranded whale from a point 20 miles distant.

Characteristics. In his frozen habitat, the polar bear spends most of his time roaming a tremendous range in search of food. He travels almost without pause over the land and ice floes, giving careful attention to everything edible. His pace is rapid and tireless, and, as the only truly aquatic bear, he swims great distances, at three to six miles an hour, often many miles from land, using only his forelegs to propel himself.

Largely carnivorous, his favorite food is the seal, but he will turn to fish, porpoise, a stranded whale, roots, seaweed, and grass when no other sustenance is available. There is no indication that his grass eating is the result of hunger, however, for analysis of the stomach contents of many polar bears shows that grass often is eaten on top of a full meal. The inference is that he craves a vegetable balance for health reasons.

He is a highly skilled stalker, and the animal on which he gets most practice is the wily seal. When he winds or sights a seal napping on an ice floe, the polar bear will move at a fast, noiseless shuffle over snow or ice and slide into the water with hardly a ripple. He paddles gracefully and quietly, with only the top of his head showing. When a few yards from the edge of the floe he submerges, then emerges from the water with a remarkable rush and kills the seal with the rapid sweep of a paw.

He hunts eider ducks and scoters with equal efficiency, and eats them, as he does the seal, completely. The bones, skin, hair, and teeth of such prey pass through his stomach undigested.

The attitude of the polar bear toward man , its only enemy, is unpredictable. On one occasion it will defend food, habitat, and cubs with real ferocity, and will wage a roaring attack when cornered. On other occasions the vaguest scent of m a n sends this bear rushing away at top speed.

There is some conflict among zoologists as to the hibernation tendency of the polar bear. Some maintain that only the pregnant female hibernates; others contest this, pointing out that in many areas pregnant females have been killed during the hibernating season, and that during this season as many females as males are seen. The denning, or holing-up, of both male and female is the same. They select a jumble of shore ice, or dig a hole in deep-drifted snow. These holes are about 7 feet long and 3 feet wide, with at least a one-foot thick roof and a small ventilating hole.

Breeding. The male and female polar bear go their solitary, lonely ways except during mating season, which extends from late May into July. The cubs, normally just one, but occasionally two and rarely three, arrive late in December or early in January. They are about the size of an adult guinea pig, and are born naked and blind. The mother is asleep when they are born, and they instinctively burrow into the warm fur and suckle. By April they have increased greatly in both size and strength, and have a heavy coat of white, woolly fur which is heavy enough to protect them from the rigors of an Arctic spring, which normally is well below zero.

Zoologists report that in some areas the bears have two mating seasons, one in early March , the other in August, but the gestation period is the same in each instance, namely between ten and 11 months.

The polar bear mother is one of the most devoted in all wild life. She guards her cubs with ferocity, and teaches them the art of survival with extreme patience. It is her body which protects them against the piercing storms, and she tows them or rides them on her back across lanes of open water. She teaches them how to stalk and kill the fat hair seals and how to catch fish. The female is inclined to be more wary than the male, and her range is not so wide as that of the male. She is inclined to have a definite range, normally not too far from land, and this trait is intensified when she has cubs.

When a female with a cub is killed, the task of catching the cub is not so simple as it is with other members of the bear family. The cub will run away with amazing speed, and if captured is vicious in the extreme, using both claws and teeth in an effort to win freedom. Like the parents, a cub has a tremendous tenacity for life, and even a serious wound often fails to bring death.

Range and Distribution. The entire length of the Arctic coast comes with in the distribution range of the polar bear. It is a wet, cold, and bleak climate, with temperatures often dripping to 60 degrees below zero, but it is a preferred habitat. Food is always a problem, and exposure to the climate frequently causes the bears to suffer from bone and muscle ailments.

Polar bears have been seen as far south as Newfoundland, but the supposition is that they were swept to this southerly area aboard ice floes. Often these bears will drift along on a big berg because of its large seal population. Such floes sometimes drift far, and as they move southward they disintegrate, occasionally leaving the bear stranded miles from the nearest land. Because of his great endurance as a swimmer the bear often manages to reach shore. The polar bear population of Iceland as well as Newfoundland has been increased through this means.

Distribution of Polar Bear

The peregrinations of the bear usually are restricted to the ice floes, and he moves from one to the other in search of his favorite food. Occasionally, however, one will be found from 18 to 20 miles from the nearest open water, crouched near a seal-hole.


Date added: 2022-12-11; views: 313;

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