Chill out! February 27 is International Polar Bear Day, so Planet Experts has compiled a list of four cool facts (and one horrifying fact) to help you raise awareness about the brainiest bears of the Great White North.
5) The Polar Bear Has Many Names
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) has many names. In Russia, they’re known as beliy medved, or the “white bear.” In Norway and Denmark they’re called isbjorn, the “ice bear.” The native Inuits of the Arctic refer to the bear as Nanuq or Pihoqahiak, the “ever-wandering one.” According to Polar Bears International, the Sami people will not speak the polar bear’s name for fear of offending him. They refer to the polar bear as “God’s dog” or “old man in the fur cloak.”
4) They’re the Einsteins of the Bear World
According to scientist Alison Ames, polar bears may have IQs as high as some apes. Ames says that their ability to hunt seals in the treacherous arctic environment is a sure sign of their intelligence. “This is learned behavior and reveals that polar bears are very intelligent animals,” she explains. “They are highly cognitive creatures that top the food chain in polar regions. You have to be very clever to do that. Hunting and trapping a seal is no easy matter.”
3) They Like to Work With Their Hands
This goes along with being smarter than the average bear. After studying several polar bears in eight zoos in the British Isles, Alison Ames found that the captive bears regularly manipulated objects in their environment with a dexterity far beyond expectation. Not only is this an indicator of high intelligence, it also means that bears have significant behavioral and psychological needs while living in captivity. “Day-to-day husbandry routines should be modified in such a way that bears have a steady supply of movable objects,” Ames concluded in her paper on the subject, in order to keep them mentally stable.
2) They’re Extremely Tough
As the top marine predator in the Arctic ecosystem, the polar bear is not to be messed with. They have strong, powerful arms and their paws are webbed, making them great swimmers. The “old man in a fur cloak” can cover up to 2,485 miles during a migration and can swim 62 miles through the water if necessary. They have also been clocked sprinting at speeds of 31 mph.
With some adult males topping out at over 1,300 pounds and measuring almost nine feet in length, polar bears are not only the largest species of bear, they’re also the largest carnivore on the planet. And, yes, they can be very dangerous to humans. It has been said that “polar bears are the only animal to actively hunt humans,” though in actuality any large predator will hunt humans if hungry and/or desperate enough.
Their fuzziness and penchant for hawking sugary cola aside, polar bears are wild animals and deserve the same respect afforded to lions, crocodiles and hippos: If you’re in their territory, you are a potential menu item.
1) They’re in Trouble
Last summer, professional science denier and amateur snowball thrower Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) said polar bears are doing just fine. “There is a problem with polar bears right now: It’s overpopulation,” he told the Heartland Institute. “If you look at the alarmists, [they say] the polar bears are disappearing. Well, that’s not quite true.”
Unfortunately, the honorable Senator from Oklahoma isn’t quite up to date with the latest polar bear facts. Between 2001 and 2010, the polar bear population in the southern Beaufort Sea dropped 40 percent. But giving Inhofe the benefit of the doubt, there are 18 other known polar bear populations that we have limited data for. According to National Geographic, half of those bears live in such remote locations that they’re difficult to study (or even obtain funding to study). Of the nine populations we do have data for, four of them are decreasing, five are stable and one located in Canada’s M’Clintock Channel is actually increasing.
However, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has stated that the species as a whole is on the decline, and it’s because of climate change.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and that’s destroying the territory where polar bears have historically hunted for food. IUCN considers the loss of Arctic sea ice “the most serious threat to Polar Bears throughout their circumpolar range.”
Multiple studies warn of the disappearance of Arctic ice, but perhaps none puts it in starker terms than a 2014 paper published in the journal PLOS One: “Under business-as-usual climate projections, polar bears may face starvation and reproductive failure across the entire [Canadian Arctic] Archipelago by the year 2100.”
Overall sea ice loss for the planet is equivalent to about 13,500 square miles per year from 1979 to 2013. With their habitat literally disappearing beneath their feet, polar bears are being forced to search and swim over farther distances for their food. Many are dying in the process.
This is a problem that can only be solved one way: Polar bears cannot migrate someplace colder, so global warming needs to be stopped. That requires active curtailment of carbon emissions and a switch to cleaner fuels and more sustainable economic practices. It’s not an easy solution, but it is a simple one.