Starting our journey to know more about our fellow earthlings with the Polar bear Ursus maritimus since it has become the poster child for climate change. Volunteering at the Columbus Zoo has helped me learn a lot more about animals than I did when I graduated with a degree in zoology (mostly me paying more attention to the animal rather than the science I should say). This month the zoo opened its Polar frontier to the public and it has been an instant hit with one and all!
It is during the introduction to the Polar frontier and preparing to talk about them and answer questions that I realized how much things have changed for them and how much things are still changing.
At first look they look white and cuddly (like all the teddy bears in the world!). Ursus maritimus Polar Bears are the world’s largest land predators. They evolved from the brown bears 200,000 years ago. They have adaptations to live in the cold arctic climate they call home. Polar bears live in the circumpolar north (meaning inside the Arctic Circle on northern most parts of our earth) and hunt for seals their main food source through cracks in ice called “leads”. Approximate Polar bear population in the wild is believed to be between 20,000 and 25,000 as of 2008. Polar bears live up to 25 years in the wild and 40 years at zoos. Polar bears have huge paws with sickle shaped claws which help them walk on ice without slipping. Size wise the males are larger standing between 8-10 feet as adults and weighing between 550-1,700 pounds (approximately 250-770 K g) females stand between 6-8 feet full grown and weigh between 200-700 pounds (90-320 K g). Polar bears have solid insulation for surviving the Arctic climate (temperatures dip to -50°F / -45°C). They have 2 layers of fur and a layer of blubber which can be 4.5 inches thick!
The female bears after mating and feeding heavily in April and May dig a den along mountain slopes or snowdrifts (moving snow accumulating along slopes, kind of like sand dunes in the deserts) in October or early November. The Mother bears give birth to mostly twin cubs during November or December. The cubs are 12-14 inches when born and weigh around a pound. They grow feeding on their mother’s rich milk. The Mother bear and cubs do not emerge from the den until March April, and the mother bear does not eat, drink or defecate during this whole time! Once out of the den in March – April she heads out looking for a seal to hunt and eat and thus starts the cubs first lesson in real life survival. She teaches them to hunt by targeting seal pups which are still in their den. The cubs stay with the mom for up to 2 years.
- Five nations are home to polar bears in the wild: Canada (where almost 60% of them live), U.S. (Alaska), Russia, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway.
- Polar Bear cubs below the age of 1 are called coys.
- They are the largest land predators and the only predator they have is the Human!
- The largest Polar bear on record was a 2,209 pound male!
- They are so powerful they can capture and drag a seal weighing between 150-200 pounds from water on to the ice!
- They pretty much eat anything they want (real Omnivores), but Ringed Seals are their favorite food.
- Polar bears only eat the blubber in the seals they kill and leave the rest behind for other carnivores to feed on, like the Arctic foxes.
- They are the top most predator in the Arctic food chain, and keep the seal population under control.
- They have one of the slowest birth-rates amongst mammals, having only 5 litters in their lifetime.
- Most Polar bears spend most of their life on the ice and exception is the Western Hudson Bay population which spends most of its time on land while not hunting to stay cool and conserve energy.
Polar bears depend on ice for livelihood – they breed, hunt and even build their maternity dens on ice! Increasing global temperature has lead to the ice melting faster than normal. Their time has been reduced by around 3 weeks than what they had 20 years ago. If the climate change is not brought under control scientists believe two thirds of the population could disappear by 2030 i.e. in 20 years!
Rapid loss of sea ice is the major threat to the Polar Bear. Watch the Receding ice video courtesy Polar Bear International
Their population is also impacted by poaching, pollution and industrial impact. If not properly regulated hunting could also join the list.
Climate change affects not just us but the effect is wide spread, it is time we take a stand. Every small step counts. Live Green, Leave the Earth better for the future.
For more information Polar Bears International Website