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Polar Bear

Ursus maritimus

Photo: Polar bear with cub

Dutiful mothers, female polar bears usually give birth to twin cubs, which stay with her for more than two years until they can hunt and survive on their own. (View larger version)

Photograph by Norbert Rosing

Published

Polar bears roam the Arctic ice sheets and swim in that region's coastal waters. They are very strong swimmers, and their large front paws, which they use to paddle, are slightly webbed. Some polar bears have been seen swimming hundreds of miles from land—though they probably cover most of that distance by floating on sheets of ice.

Polar bears live in one of the planet's coldest environments and depend on a thick coat of insulated fur, which covers a warming layer of fat. Fur even grows on the bottom of their paws, which protects against cold surfaces and provides a good grip on ice. The bear's stark white coat provides camouflage in surrounding snow and ice. But under their fur, polar bears have black skin—the better to soak in the sun's warming rays.

These powerful predators typically prey on seals. In search of this quarry they frequent areas of shifting, cracking ice where seals may surface to breathe air. They also stalk ice edges and breathing holes. If the opportunity presents itself, polar bears will also consume carcasses, such as those of dead whales. These Arctic giants are the masters of their environment and have no natural enemies.

Females den by digging into deep snow drifts, which provide protection and insulation from the Arctic elements. They give birth in winter, usually to twins. Young cubs live with their mothers for some 28 months to learn the survival skills of the far north. Females aggressively protect their young, but receive no help from their solitary male mates. In fact, male polar bears may even kill young of their species.

Polar bears are attractive and appealing, but they are powerful predators that do not typically fear humans, which can make them dangerous. Near human settlements, they often acquire a taste for garbage, bringing bears and humans into perilous proximity.

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