The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is the largest terrestrial predator alive today.
The only other bear similar in size to the polar bear is the Kodiak bear, which is a subspecies of brown bear. Adult male polar bears weigh 350–700 kg (770–1,500 lb) and measure 2.4–3 metres (7 ft 10 in–9 ft 10 in) in total length. Around the Beaufort Sea, however, mature males reportedly average 450 kg (1,000 lb). Adult females are roughly half the size of males and normally weigh 150–250 kg (330–550 lb), measuring 1.8–2.4 metres (5 ft 11 in–7 ft 10 in) in length. Elsewhere, a slightly larger estimated average weight of 260 kg (570 lb) was claimed for adult females. When pregnant, however, females can weigh as much as 500 kg (1,100 lb). The polar bear is among the most sexually dimorphic of mammals, surpassed only by the pinnipeds such as elephant seals. The largest polar bear on record, reportedly weighing 1,002 kg (2,209 lb), was a male shot at Kotzebue Sound in northwestern Alaska in 1960. This specimen, when mounted, stood 3.39 m (11 ft 1 in) tall on its hindlegs. The shoulder height of an adult polar bear is 122 to 160 cm (4 ft 0 in to 5 ft 3 in). While all bears are short-tailed, the polar bear's tail is relatively the shortest amongst living bears, ranging from 7 to 13 cm (2.8 to 5.1 in) in length.
Compared with its closest relative, the brown bear, the polar bear has a more elongated body build and a longer skull and nose. As predicted by Allen's rule for a northerly animal, the legs are stocky and the ears and tail are small. However, the feet are very large to distribute load when walking on snow or thin ice and to provide propulsion when swimming; they may measure 30 cm (12 in) across in an adult. The pads of the paws are covered with small, soft papillae (dermal bumps), which provide traction on the ice. The polar bear's claws are short and stocky compared to those of the brown bear, perhaps to serve the former's need to grip heavy prey and ice. The claws are deeply scooped on the underside to assist in digging in the ice of the natural habitat. Research of injury patterns in polar bear forelimbs found injuries to the right forelimb to be more frequent than those to the left, suggesting, perhaps, right-handedness. Unlike the brown bear, polar bears in captivity are rarely overweight or particularly large, possibly as a reaction to the warm conditions of most zoos.
The 42 teeth of a polar bear reflect its highly carnivorous diet. The cheek teeth are smaller and more jagged than in the brown bear, and the canines are larger and sharper. The dental formula is 188.8.131.52/184.108.40.206.
Polar bears are superbly insulated by up to 10 cm (4 in) of adipose tissue, their hide and their fur. Polar bear fur consists of a layer of dense underfur and an outer layer of guard hairs, which appear white to tan but are actually transparent. Two genes that are known to influence melanin production, LYST and AIM1, are both mutated in polar bears, possibly leading to the absence on this pigment in their fur. The guard hair is 5–15 cm (2–6 in) over most of the body. Polar bears gradually moult from May to August, but, unlike other Arctic mammals, they do not shed their coat for a darker shade to provide camouflage in summer conditions. The hollow guard hairs of a polar bear coat were once thought to act as fiber-optic tubes to conduct light to its black skin, where it could be absorbed; however, this hypothesis was disproved by a study in 1998.
The white coat usually yellows with age. When kept in captivity in warm, humid conditions, the fur may turn a pale shade of green due to algae growing inside the guard hairs. Males have significantly longer hairs on their forelegs, which increase in length until the bear reaches 14 years of age. The male's ornamental foreleg hair is thought to attract females, serving a similar function to the lion's mane.
The polar bear has an extremely well developed sense of smell, being able to detect seals nearly 1.6 km (1 mi) away and buried under 1 m (3 ft) of snow. Its hearing is about as acute as that of a human, and its vision is also good at long distances.
The polar bear is an excellent swimmer and often will swim for days. One bear swam continuously for 9 days in the frigid Bering Sea for 700 km (400 mi) to reach ice far from land. She then travelled another 1,800 km (1,100 mi). During the swim, the bear lost 22% of her body mass and her yearling cub died. With its body fat providing buoyancy, the bear swims in a dog paddle fashion using its large forepaws for propulsion. Polar bears can swim at 10 km/h (6 mph). When walking, the polar bear tends to have a lumbering gait and maintains an average speed of around 5.6 km/h (3.5 mph). When sprinting, they can reach up to 40 km/h (25 mph).
Life history and behavior
Unlike brown bears, polar bears are not territorial. Although stereotyped as being voraciously aggressive, they are normally cautious in confrontations, and often choose to escape rather than fight. Satiated polar bears rarely attack humans unless severely provoked. However, due to their lack of prior human interaction, hungry polar bears are extremely unpredictable, fearless towards people and are known to kill and sometimes eat humans. Many attacks by brown bears are the result of surprising the animal, which is not the case with the polar bear. Polar bears are stealth hunters, and the victim is often unaware of the bear's presence until the attack is underway. Whereas brown bears often maul a person and then leave, polar bear attacks are more likely to be predatory and are almost always fatal. However, due to the very small human population around the Arctic, such attacks are rare. Michio Hoshino, a Japanese wildlife photographer, was once pursued briefly by a hungry male polar bear in northern Alaska. According to Hoshino, the bear started running but Hoshino made it to his truck. The bear was able to reach the truck and tore one of the doors off the truck before Hoshino was able to drive off.
In general, adult polar bears live solitary lives. Yet, they have often been seen playing together for hours at a time and even sleeping in an embrace, and polar bear zoologist Nikita Ovsianikov has described adult males as having "well-developed friendships." Cubs are especially playful as well. Among young males in particular, play-fighting may be a means of practicing for serious competition during mating seasons later in life. Polar bears are usually quiet but do communicate with various sounds and vocalizations. Females communicate with their young with moans and chuffs, and the distress calls of both cubs and subadults consists of bleats. Cubs may hum while nursing. When nervous, bears produce huffs, chuffs and snorts while hisses, growls and roars are signs of aggression. Chemical communication can also be important: bears leave behind their scent in their tracks which allow individuals to keep track of one another in the vast Arctic wilderness.
In 1992, a photographer near Churchill took a now widely circulated set of photographs of a polar bear playing with a Canadian Eskimo Dog (Canis familiaris) a tenth of its size. The pair wrestled harmlessly together each afternoon for 10 days in a row for no apparent reason, although the bear may have been trying to demonstrate its friendliness in the hope of sharing the kennel's food. This kind of social interaction is uncommon; it is far more typical for polar bears to behave aggressively towards dogs.