Visitors to the Arctic Circle may not realise that the region is actually named for its most famous furry resident: the Polar Bear. From the Greek arktos, or 'bear', comes the word Arctic, a nod to th...
Visitors to the Arctic Circle may not realise that the region is actually named for its most famous furry resident: the Polar Bear. From the Greek arktos, or 'bear', comes the word Arctic, a nod to this magnificent, awe-inspiring animal. If you’re planning on going on a wildlife tour that takes in bear watching in the Arctic Circle, you’ll have the opportunity to experience the size, stature, and power of the Polar Bear for yourself.
While most people have only seen these incredible animals on nature documentaries, seeing one (or a number) of them on a bear watching tour is an experience like no other.
In terms of overall physical appearance (except colour, of course), the Polar Bear is very similar to its sibling species, the Brown Bear. They have, however, evolved in order to survive the bitter climate, with specially adapted bodies, skin, fur, paws, and teeth making it possible for them to thrive even in the harshest Arctic conditions.
It's very easy to tell between the male and female as they differ drastically in size and weight. Males weigh anywhere between 350 and 700 kg, but females average only half that. Similarly, adult males reach 2.4 to 3 metres in length, while females average between 1.8 and 2.4 metres.
You might also notice the Polar Bear’s unusually long neck and snout. These features help them search in deep holes in the sea ice in order to capture seals, their primary food source. They may lie in wait on the ice for many hours waiting for a seal to come up for air and, when that moment arrives, the long neck and snout are ideally suited for plunging into the breathing hole to snare the unlucky creature.
Skin and Fur
Polar bears are insulated from the Arctic chill by two layers of fur: a dense layer of under-fur, which prevents body heat from escaping, and the longer outer layer of guard fur. The guard fur appears white or tan but is actually transparent; these hollow, transparent hairs scatter and reflect light, making the animal appear white - a handy adaptation that allows it to blend in with its snowy surroundings. (You’ll have to keep a sharp eye out for these well-camouflaged creatures in order to catch a sighting on your bear watching tour.)
Beneath these two layers of fur, the bear’s skin is darkly pigmented, almost black. This allows it to soak in and retain the sun’s warmth through the transparent fur. Under the skin, a layer of blubber up to 10cm thick provides additional warmth, and also helps the bear stay afloat while swimming.
The animal's large, slightly webbed paws help it to distribute its weight while walking on snow (rather like a snowshoe) and also make it a very powerful swimmer. The pads of the paws are covered in small, soft bumps that provide excellent traction on the ice. All bears lose much of their heat through their paws, but the Polar Bear has adapted to grow hair between the toes and around the pads, which helps to conserve heat and energy in the Arctic cold. In fact, it is so good at conserving heat that it begins to overheat when temperatures hit 10oC!
The sharp teeth and powerful jaws reflect the animal's carnivorous diet. The extremely long, widely spaced canine teeth are adapted for seizing and holding prey, especially its primary target, the Ringed Seal. The Polar Bear’s cheek teeth are sharper and more jagged than those of the Brown Bear, which makes them well-adapted for tearing and chewing meat.
While you're on a bear watching tour you may get the chance to see this magnificent creature's many physical adaptations in action. They have learned to survive in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet – and not only survive, but thrive as one of the most powerful predators in the world.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer. If you’re looking for bear watching holidays, 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.