Bites at Animal Planet

27 Feb

Celebrate International Polar Bear Day With These Little-Known Facts

By Geoff York, Head of Species Conservation, Global Arctic Program, World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

© / Steven Kazlowski / WWF-Canon

Every year, Feb. 27 marks International Polar Bear Day. I have had the unique experience of studying polar bears for the last 17 years of my career. As a child growing up in rural Indiana, I never imagined that my job would take me to studying polar bears in the wilds of Alaska. Today, in honor of the polar bears, I’d like to share some little-known facts about this magnificent species.

Denning – A Time to Lay Low. The fall is a time of fasting for many pregnant female polar bears, especially those who are on land. Pregnant females then enter a den between late fall and early winter, where they remain while giving birth and nurturing their tiny cubs until they can safely emerge in the spring. During this time, polar bear mothers stay alert – not going into a true state of hibernation – to be able to nurse, maintain the den, and keep the cubs warm, helping them grow before they emerge from the den. The mother bears tend to give birth to one to three cubs with twins being most common.

© Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada

Fat Reserve – A Tire Around the Waist Preferred. Polar bears maintain a thick layer of body fat that helps insulate them from cold air and water along with a thick undercoat of fur and long guard hairs. During pregnancy, polar bears can live off fat reserves for up to nine months. Polar bear cubs actually grow quickly on their mother's rich milk, which is made up of about 31 percent fat! Among the least developed mammals at birth, cubs make up for this with the high-calorie milk from their mothers.

Threatened – The Ice Does Not Suffice.  The population of polar bears ranges from United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Greenland. Climate change and the resulting changes to sea ice habitat are impacting some polar bear populations and anticipated to dramatically reduce populations and range across the Arctic by the end of this century. Less sea ice and more open ocean are also bringing new challenges to polar bears as human activities increase across their Arctic Home. Tackling immediate threats from human activities while reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally through improved efficiencies and investment in renewable energy will help reduce the impacts of climate change, giving polar bears and the Arctic the time and ultimately the temperatures they need for long-term survival.

© Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada

Satellite Technology – Field Work in the Air. Scientists are deploying the best available technologies to better understand polar bears, their environment, and how both are responding to fairly rapid changes as the Arctic warms at over twice the global average rate. GPS enabled collars track data, showing us what bears are doing when they are far from human observation. New satellite based imagery is concurrently providing real-time data on the sea ice habitat itself, extent and thickness, as well as the location of open water leads and larger areas of unfrozen sea. Combined, these information streams allow scientists to better understand the relationships between sea ice and polar bears and then model that into future warmer climate scenarios. With additional information about polar bear biology and behavior, coupled with expert knowledge from those who live among bears and those who study them, we can anticipate future trends and consider ways to mitigate adverse impacts as we head into a less certain future for this truly amazing species.

For more on polar bears, check out some of this related content!

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