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.