Are Polar Bears Real?

Sometimes, you get the simple questions.

Like so many of my son’s questions, this one came while we were in the car. We’d run a few errands and were heading back towards our house. I was paying attention to my driving, and he was playing with the new toy pterodactyl he’d saved up his chore money to buy, and then out of nowhere he asks that question. “Are polar bears real?”

That’s it. Just a random question out of the blue.

“Yes,” I answer. Satisfied, he starts telling me about how his pterodactyl is a nice pterodactyl, and how it only eats bad guys. So, no. I have no idea what prompted that question.

Polar Bears

Just to restate the obvious, polar bears are real. Look. Here’s a picture:

polar bear

Biologically, the polar bear is Ursus maritimus, meaning “a bear of the sea” or “a marine bear”. At present, their population is estimated at 20,000 to 25,000 worldwide, with their primary habitat on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. They are specifically adapted for a polar marine environment, and are generally classified as marine mammals Males grow to be between 8 and 9 feet (2.4 to 2.6 meters) from nose to tail and up to 1,760 lbs (800 kg), while females generally reach 6 to 7 feet (2 meters) and “only” up to 880 lbs (400 kg). Interestingly enough, they swim using only their front paws – the rear are held flat and used to help steer.

Sadly, it is possible that polar bears may not be real in the near future. Not in the wild, at least. They are classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which means they meet any of the following criteria (as defined in the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria) and are “therefore considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild”:

  • A significant reduction in population over the past 10 years or three generations, whichever is longer (50% or more if the cause is reversible, understood, and has stopped; 30% or more if the cause is not understood, or has not ceased, or is not reversible).
  • A significantly restricted geographic range (less than 20,000 square kilometers with fragmented populations, declining geographic range, or extremely fluctuating range).
  • A population of less than 10,000 mature individuals with a continuing population decline of at leat 10% in the last 10 years or 3 generations.

The polar bear specifically has a Vulnerable A3c rating, meanig it is vulnerable because there is a projected population reduction of greater than 80% over the next 10 years/3 generations, due to a decline in area of occupancy, extent of occurrence, and/or quality of habitat.

Why?  Well…

Global Warming

Yep. That perennial scientific consensus and political football, global warming. The primary habitat of polar bears is Arctic sea ice, with nursing females actually making dens on the ice. The Arctic sea ice minimums are declining at an average rate of 13.4% each decade, relative to the 1981 – 2010 average, meaning less sea ice is available for them. And while they can swim and are considered marine mammals, they aren’t aquatic animals. They still have to climb out of the water.

They aren’t the only animals impacted by global warming, but they’re kind of the poster child for it. As Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission says:

“Climate change will be one of the major drivers of species extinctions in the 21st century. In order to slow the pace the adverse effects of climate change are having on species around the world, we must work to reduce use of energy from fossil fuels and ensure that our leaders make and adhere to strong commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions now.”

Grolar Bears

One possible side-effect of polar bear habitat change is the “grolar bear” an uncommon half-polar bear, half-grizzly bear that, until 2006, was only known to exist in zoos. The first confirmed wild grolar was described as having “white fur… interspersed with brown patches. It also had long claws, a concave facial profile, and a humped back, which are characteristic of a grizzly.”

grolar bear

DNA analysis showed that the bear’s father was a grizzly and his mother a polar bear. According to the geneticist who studied the grolar bear, grizzly and polar bears are the most closely related of any living bear species, close enough tha tthe hybrid could have successfully mated with either parent species. The hybridization was considered unusual, because – although grizzly and polar bear habitats do overlap in the Canadian Arctic, the encounters are generally aggressive. As a result, they aren’t common. As of 2012, there were only five confirmed sightings.

Do They Eat Penguins?

No. I mean, they probably would if given the chance. Generally speaking, though, polar bears don’t go south of Hudson Bay. The furthest north you find penguins is the Galapagos Islands. As a result, polar bears don’t eat penguins for the same reasons that bengal tigers don’t eat llamas – lack of opportunity.