Polar bears are seen in zoos and on TV, but few people have had the privilege of seeing them living wild in their natural habitat. They’re fierce protectors of their young, determined hunters, and possess amazing endurance that allows them to live comfortably in the frozen landscape they call home. They’re uniquely suited to life in the wild Arctic, but the disappearance of the polar ice caps is putting their population at risk. The best way to help polar bears in the wild is to understand them. Here are six interesting facts you might not have known about polar bears.
#1 – They’re the world’s largest land predator
With adult males weighing close to 1,000 pounds, no animal on Earth is a bigger, more fearsome meat-eater than the polar bear. When walking on all fours, the average adult stands four to five feet tall, but when they rise to their hind legs, they tower over every man. Every animal in the Arctic lives in fear of these mammoth-sized creatures, and polar bears rule over their icy kingdoms by asserting their dominance over everything on—and below—the ice.
#2 – They only have one main habitat
The frozen wild of the Arctic is the only home suitable for the polar bear. Their population spans across the northernmost parts of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Russia, and Norway. They’re most often found near the edges of pack ice where the line between land and ocean is constantly changing. The ice melts and refreezes creating a maze of channels perfect for hunting. Thick fur and a layer of fat just under the skin keeps them warm in frigid conditions, and their iconic white coat is the perfect camouflage.
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#3 – They travel 1,000s of miles a year for the sake of food
When winter hits and food is scarce, there is no limit to how far an individual polar bear will go to find his dinner. Adult males unencumbered by young cubs spend days on end traveling in search of food. Their diet consists of mostly seals with the occasional walrus, beluga whale carcass, and bird egg mixed in. They’re also powerful swimmers and have been known to traverse a hundred miles of open ocean in one stretch.
#4 – Newborn cubs weigh only one pound
After putting on as much fat as possible during the fall, expectant mothers take to their dens in October and November. They give birth to no more than two cubs at a time, and each is incredibly tiny compared to their massive mother. The females will stay in their maternity dens and nurse their newborns for several months until the babies grow to be 20-30 pounds. In the spring, they venture out of the den in search of food. By the time they’re a year old, cubs will be about the size of an adult man.
# 5 – Humans and global warming are a polar bear’s only real threats
While life on a frozen tundra isn’t easy, polar bears are at the top of the food chain and perfectly adept to survival in the Arctic. With only an estimated 20,000-40,000 polar bears left in the wild, they’ve been given the status as “vulnerable.” They’re the first vertebrate species to be listed by the U.S. Endangered Species Act as at risk of extinction primarily because of humans and global warming. The ice that makes up their home is melting, and humans are invading their territories to mine oil and coal.