Predator and Prey: The Polar Bear on the Hunt
Wildlife tours offer unparalleled opportunities for observing bears, including the Polar Bear. Learn more about its amazing hunting techniques.
Anyone who’s seen even a photograph of a Polar Bear can’t deny the raw power of this awe-inspiring creature. This Arctic native is one of the most powerful land predators on Earth, and has evolved to dominate its frozen environment. If you’re interested in observing bears, there is nothing more exciting and rewarding than catching a glimpse of this imposing predator in the wild.
The Polar Bear’s Diet
Unlike most other species of bears, which are largely opportunistic omnivores, this Bear is almost exclusively carnivorous. A large part of its diet consists of the seals that swim under the sea ice, particularly the Ringed Seal and Bearded Seal. The Arctic is home to millions of seals, meaning a plentiful food supply for the Polar Bear. Catching the seals, however, isn’t easy. The Bear’s only chance to do so is at the spaces between the sea and the air – that is, on the Arctic ice sheet.
The Polar Bear’s Predatory Tactics
To catch its prey, the Polar Bear mainly uses a tactic called ‘still hunting’. Firstly, the bear uses its superior sense of smell to sniff out a seal’s breathing hole. Seals cut these breathing holes in the ice in the autumn, using the sharp claws on their front flippers to open and maintain them throughout the winter. A single seal might have 10-15 breathing holes over the range of its territory. For the Polar Bear, this means a lot of waiting around, hoping the seal will choose to come up for air at the hole the bear has chosen.
Wildlife buffs who have some experience observing bears will recognise the telltale signs of a Polar Bear on a stakeout. The animal might wait for hours, or even days, for a seal to appear - but it’s worth the wait, as a single seal can keep a Polar Bear going for an entire week. If and when a seal surfaces, the Bear wastes no time. It pounces on the unfortunate pinniped, seizing it with powerful paws and jaws, then swiftly dispatching it by biting its head to crush the skull.
If a Bear is lucky, it might be able to catch a seal on the surface of the ice itself. Occasionally, Ringed and Bearded Seals will haul themselves out of their breathing holes to rest on the ice - making them easy prey for the Bear.
A mature Polar Bear tends to eat just the calorie-rich skin and blubber of the seal, while cubs will eat the protein-packed red meat. After feeding, the Bear is an extremely well-mannered animal, as it actually washes its fur with water or snow!
Other Dietary Habits
The Polar Bear’s preferred method of hunting obviously depends upon the presence of sea ice. In the summer and early fall, when the sea isn’t frozen, they have to depend on their fat reserves, sometimes for months at a time. Unlike Brown and Black Bears, Polar Bears don’t hibernate, but can live off fat stores during times when seals are unattainable. Although it prefers to eat mainly Ringed and Bearded Seals, these Bears have been known to occasionally eat beached whales – a true feast indeed! They might also scavenge upon the carcasses left behind by other bears, especially young adult bears that can kill their own prey but can’t defend it from others.
Observing bears in their natural habitat is always an awe-inspiring experience, but seeing this Bear on the hunt is truly a sight like no other. If you’re lucky enough to see this in action, you’re not likely to forget it in a hurry.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer. If you’re looking for a holiday with a focus on observing bears, Naturetrek specialises in expert-led natural history and wildlife tours worldwide. Naturetrek brings over 25 years of experience to polar expeditions and tours to other spectacular regions on Earth.