Polar bear

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Polar bear

Ursus maritimus

The polar bear (its scientific name being Ursus maritimus) is the world's largest land carnivore, or meat-eater.  It is the biggest member of the bear family, known by the scientific name, Ursidae.

Image: A polar bear.

3D View: Polar bear
A close up of a polar bear walking in the snow.

Why this species is important

The polar bear has long been a symbol of the Arctic and this mammal is vitally important to many northern inhabitants.  Polar bears provide an important source of income for many Inuit hunters.  Their meat provides food for sled dogs and the hides are a source of clothing.  Traditionally, the Inuit of Greenland made unique pants made from polar bear skins.





Climate change and sea ice

For the polar bear, sea ice means life or death. The polar bear uses sea ice for hunting. Polar bears need sea ice as a platform to reach the prey that sustains them: ringed and bearded seals.  As the sea ice changes and disappears, their critical hunting habitat is destroyed, making it harder for polar bears to find and hunt their prey.

Illustrating the planet's polar ice cap, this image depicts how sea ice cover is expected to change over an 88 year period. Sliding the scale from left (2002) to right (2090), as the climate becomes warmer, sea ice cover will have decreased substantially by the year 2090.



An illustration showing the climate warming, between 2002 and 2090, and sea ice cover decreasing.
2090 (*Projected sea ice cover)
2002 (Sea ice cover)

"Water bears"


Inuit Elders refer to polar bears that spend significant amounts of time in the ocean as “water bears.”  Polar bears are dependent on sea ice as a place to travel, hunt seals, find mates and breed, and raise their young. Though some bears do not eat very much during the summer months, females with young have to hunt to keep their growing cubs supplied with food. With the increasing loss of summer sea ice, polar bears are losing their traditional spring and summer hunting environments.


Hunters on land and sea


Polar bears are great travellers and frequently cross many of the Arctic's islands in search of new hunting areas. Their main source of food while in or near the ocean is the ringed seal.  While on land they may scavenge on dead muskoxen, eat vegetation or even hunt lemmings, small Arctic rodents.




Scientists have studied polar bear DNA and believe that they are the distant relatives of grizzly bears, the polar bear having evolved into its own species many years ago. Recently, however, several bears with characteristics of both grizzlies and polar bears have been spotted in the western Arctic. In at least one case, one “polar-griz” has been determined to be the descendent of a grizzly and polar bear that mated. This signifies the successful cross-breeding between two different species.




Polar bears and sea ice

The polar bear is a circumpolar animal, meaning it has a wide distribution all across the Arctic, on land as well as on the ice of the Arctic Ocean.

Though considered a marine mammal, polar bears also travel on land, even through mountain passes far from the ocean.

On occasion polar bears have wandered south and have been spotted at or below the tree line in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. In the eastern Arctic, polar bears will hitch a ride on icebergs and sometimes drift all the way to Newfoundland.


Transcript: Polar bears and sea ice

A polar bear walks alone on an ice floe, he is moving towards the edge. He steps back, goes towards the tip of the ice floe and jumps into the water. He then starts swimming. A polar bear on an ice floe, eating the carcass of a ringed seal. Two seabirds are beside the carcass. A different view of the polar bear, his face is covered with blood. He is now dragging away the carcass. He eats a few bones. Students on Ice on Zodiac boats observing a polar bear mother and her cub eating the carcass of a walrus. They are both covered in blood. The cub seems to be enjoying his meal.