Found only within the Arctic Circle, polar bears show amazing prowess in adaptability. The world’s largest land carnivore weighing upwards of 1,300 pounds, the polar bear evolved from its brethren, the grizzly, around 200,000 years ago—the blink of an eye in Darwin time. Yet science shows it didn’t take long for these amazing creatures to adapt to the Arctic’s open sea-ice environment. Below, enjoy some facts about polar bears.
Some Facts About Polar Bears
Polar bears’ fur thickened, lightened, and turned translucent, better for blending into the frozen environment, as well as for capturing heat to their darker, insulating skin beneath. They developed a thick layer of blubber—adding more insulation and aiding buoyancy—as well as a highly tuned sense of smell that can sniff out seals under the ice. A third set of eyelids protects their eyes from the glaring snow.
Considered marine mammals, the bears’ head and neck became elongated, streamlining their bodies, while wider, flatter feet work as flippers in the water. Their massive paws—the size of dinner plates—evenly distribute their weight so as not to fall through the sea ice. What’s more, the polar bear is the only creature on Earth that can hibernate at any time during the year. If it is without food for a while, even during the summer, a polar bear simply goes into a sort of walking hibernation to conserve energy. (In comparison, a brown bear would starve within about two weeks.)
At present, there are between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears left on Earth, and they are under constant threat of extinction from industrial development, unsustainable hunting, and, most important, the loss of sea ice habitat caused by rapid climate change. During the summer, the bears must travel longer distances to stay with the receding ice, while the reduced sea ice and snow cover affect their primary prey, the seal population. Thus, they are forced to hunt on land—a dietary change that, according to the US Geological Survey, is contributing to their malnourishment and declining numbers.
Hope for Polar Bears
While the situation appears dire, there is still hope. Restricting hunting would certainly help, and there is talk of supplying polar bears with food and even relocating them to the Antarctic to stave off extinction. Yet, according to Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at the non-profit Polar Bears International, the most important thing, “really the only thing,” humans can do to save polar bears is to reduce greenhouse gases and stop warming the planet. His vital research on the subject indicates there is still time to act.
“It is critical to remember,” Amstrup told the BBC1, “the warming that threatens polar bears is human-caused. If we caused it, we can fix it.”
1“Can Polar Bears be Saved?” Presented by Jane Palmer. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141107-can-polar-bears-be-saved