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Polar bears undertake extensive migrations across the shores of the Arctic Circle in pursuit of prey. Each bear’s home range is large—between 93 and 186 square miles. The bears prefer to hunt on pack ice, so are very dependent on its seasonal freezing and melting. Sometimes, the bears choose to live on the ice year-round.
Male and female polar bears don’t snuggle for warmth. They come together only for a short time while mating. When raising her cubs, the mother bear will avoid any adult males in order to protect the young. Male bears seek shelter in severe weather, but only female polar bears hibernate in the winter, when they birth their cubs in their icy dens.
The polar bear primarily eats ringed or bearded seals. The bears rely on their exceptional sense of smell to guide their hunts. They will stalk the seals on the pack ice or lie in wait near the seals’ air holes until the prey surfaces from the water. Polar bears are also scavengers and eat some seabirds and vegetation.
Females give birth every 2 to 4 years to an average of two cubs. Cubs are born from November to January while the mother is denning. Blind and tiny—weighing just over a pound—the newborns remain in the den until March or April. They stay with their mothers until they are 2 years old. Polar bears can live about 30 years.
Some of My Neighbors
Arctic Fox, Caribou, Seals, Walruses, Whales
Population Status & Threats
The polar bear is currently listed as a vulnerable species. This is overwhelmingly due to habitat loss. There are currently an estimated 25,000 polar bears in the wild, but their extinction within the wild in the next century is a possibility. In the last 50 years, global climate changes have dramatically decreased the sea ice on which the bears depend, and this trend is expected to continue. Temperatures may be rising too rapidly for polar bears to adapt. Polar bear populations are expected to shrink by at least 30% in the next 45 years. Other threats to polar bear survival include pollution, shipping, oil and gas development, and poaching.
WCS landscape ecologists have worked with polar bear researchers from the United States Geological Service to create a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) map of the changes in sea ice habitat over time. The map will help scientists distinguish short-term, seasonal effects and large-scale climate phenomena from the long-term global warming trends that threaten Arctic wildlife. Conservationists will then be able to predict where the ice is likely to remain solid in the near future, and therefore which of the world’s 18 remaining populations of polar bears have the best chance of survival.
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