What is a Polar Bear?

Mary McMahon

A polar bear is a member of a unique bear species which has specially adapted itself to the Arctic environment. Polar bears can be found throughout the Arctic, in what scientists believe to be at least 19 different subpopulations. These large animals are considered quite beautiful and majestic by many people, and in some regions they have been used as symbols of the Arctic and Arctic culture. The polar bear is also an animal of special concern and interest to scientists, because polar bear populations are very vulnerable to things like climate change and human encroachment.

Polar bears are found throughout the Arctic.
Polar bears are found throughout the Arctic.

The formal name for the polar bear is Ursus maritimus. These bears are among the largest predators in the world, reaching weights of up to 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms), with streamlined bodies which are designed for extremely efficient hunting. Polar bears have adapted a number of features for the Arctic environment, including a thick layer of insulating blubber, hollow translucent hairs which help trap warm air next to the skin, and small ears and tails to minimize heat loss. They also have large feet, which help distribute their weight evenly across thin ice and snow.

The distinguishing feature of the polar bear to many people is the classic white coat which the animals have right after molting. In fact, the hair of a polar bear is not white, as discussed above; the hairs simply refract light in a way which makes them appear white. Polar bears can also turn yellow as their hairs age and become stained, and in captivity, polar bears can turn green, as algae colonizes their hollow hairs.

Most polar bears eat a diet of seal, walrus, birds, and sometimes seaweed and fish as well. The animals have adapted muscular legs for killing their prey at one blow, along with a hefty set of teeth for efficient consumption. Polar bears live for around 20 years in the wild, and biologists estimate that there are around 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears roaming the Arctic today.

These animals are considered threatened, and in some regions they are listed as endangered species. Polar bears have experienced habitat pressure as a result of shrinking icecaps, combined with expanding human populations in the Arctic. Some polar bears are starving because they are unable to find food, while others are shot because they are a nuisance for human communities. These unfortunate circumstances have led some biologists to express alarm over the fate of the polar bear, suggesting that the animals could vanish in the wild by the middle of the 21st century.

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Discussion Comments


@cmsmith10: Here are a few more things that you could add to your research paper:

Amazingly, some female polar bears build dens with more than one room. They have even found some with “ventilation systems” in the roofs.

Female polar bears don’t start having cubs until they are about 4 or 5 years of age. The babies weigh a little more than a pound when they are born.

Polar bears can swim up to 6 mph.


@cmsmith10: You are doing a great research paper if you are doing it on polar bears! They are awesome creatures. I will try to provide you with a few facts that you might not know.

Polar bears are capable of swimming in the open seas for hundreds of miles. They can also run at speeds up to 35 mph. Many polar bears will spend their whole lives on ice without ever setting foot on land.

Polar cubs learn to freeze and remain perfectly still while their mother hunts. If they move, the mother will discipline them with a little whack to the head. Female polar bears prefer to build their dens in old snow from the previous years rather than freshly fallen snow.


Great article! I need a few more facts about polar bears for a research paper that I'm doing. Can anyone provide any more information? Thanks.

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