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Polar bear (Ursus maritimus)

It is the dream of every Spits­ber­gen visi­tor to see a polar bear. But polar bears are huge and can be dan­ge­rous, and the very few attacks of polar bears on humans hit the head­lines. But The king of the Arc­tic hims­elf is threa­ten­ed. While hun­ting was a pro­blem in the past, today it is dwind­ling sea ice and hea­vy metal pol­lu­ti­on that could redu­ce stocks in the future.

Polar bear with seal

Polar bear with catch (Beard­ed seal) and Ivo­ry gull.

Descrip­ti­on: The polar bear is the lar­gest bear spe­ci­es on Earth. Males may reach weights of 300-700 kg (length from nose to tail 1.80- 2.60 met­res) and fema­les 150-350 kg. Weight varies great­ly accor­ding to sea­son and food avai­la­bi­li­ty. In 1995, a male bear was shot on Hopen that weig­hed 800-850 kg. The colour ran­ges from dir­ty yel­low to cre­a­my yel­low to almost white, but never snow-white. If a polar bear has spent lon­ger peri­ods on land, the fur will beco­me dark yel­low and during peri­ods of star­va­ti­on, when it negle­cts beau­ty cul­tu­re, it will appear dir­ty and unsight­ly. Tel­ling the sexes apart is any­thing but tri­vi­al, espe­ci­al­ly from a distance, and requi­res good obser­va­ti­on oppor­tu­ni­ties and expe­ri­ence. Males grow lar­ger, but how do you tell a sub-adult male apart from a lar­ge fema­le? Males have a very strong neck and a broad skull base, fema­les tend to have a (rela­tively!) slim neck and a lon­ger skull. Pay atten­ti­on to the bridge of the nose: It is shorter and often hea­vi­ly scar­red with males, but in com­pa­ri­son lon­gish with fema­les.

Polar bear: male

Male polar bear with strong neck, big and wide head and scars on the nose.

Polar bear: female

Fema­le polar bear with slim neck and lon­gish head.

Dis­tri­bu­ti­on / Migra­ti­ons: Polar bears have a cir­cum­po­lar dis­tri­bu­ti­on in the Arc­tic, with seve­ral regio­nal popu­la­ti­ons, but the­re is inter­ch­an­ge bet­ween all are­as. The Sval­bard – Franz Josef Land area is con­side­red one popu­la­ti­on, but exch­an­ge with polar bears fur­ther east in the Rus­si­an Arc­tic does cer­tain­ly take place. A heli­c­op­ter cen­sus in 2004 (213 flight hours) yiel­ded a result of appro­xi­m­ate­ly 3,000 ani­mals in the Barents Sea area, with an esti­ma­ted 25,000 on a glo­bal sca­le. A fur­ther cen­sus in 2017 show­ed no signi­fi­cant chan­ge in stock num­bers despi­te chan­ging envi­ron­men­tal con­di­ti­ons such as the dra­ma­tic decli­ne in sea ice.

You have to expect polar bears any­whe­re and at any time in Sval­bard out­side the per­ma­nent­ly inha­bi­ted sett­le­ments. The pro­ba­bi­li­ty of mee­ting a bear increa­ses towards the north and east. But polar bears have even been seen insi­de the sett­le­ments, espe­ci­al­ly in times of dark­ness. The hig­hest risk to meet a polar bear on the road will be in the ear­ly mor­ning, after hours with litt­le traf­fic.

Polar bear near Longyearbyen

Curious polar bear che­cking out a hut near Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

The­re have been 5 lethal polar bear encoun­ters for humans in Sval­bard sin­ce 1971. In 3 cases, the indi­vi­du­als or groups con­cer­ned did not have any wea­pon at all (Bjørnøya 1971, Maga­le­nefjord 1977 and Pla­tå­berg 1995). In one case (Kie­per­tøya 1995), the group that was atta­cked had only a pis­tol with a calib­re far too small. In the curr­ent­ly (Novem­ber 2014) most recent case, in Tem­pel­fjord in August 2011, it appears that poten­ti­al­ly fatal mista­kes had been made with secu­ring the camp and hand­ling the rif­le, but this as, so far, not been offi­ci­al­ly con­firm­ed. It is legal­ly bin­ding to car­ry polar bear deterr­ents, usual­ly a hea­vy calib­re signal pis­tol with spe­cial ammu­ni­ti­on that makes a very loud bang. Pep­per spray is dis­cou­ra­ged by the aut­ho­ri­ties in Sval­bard, alt­hough the­re have been cases when it may have saved a polar bear’s life. In April 2013, for exam­p­le, a polar bear was shot from a short distance while it tried to break into a hut. Time would have been suf­fi­ci­ent for a safe attempt to dri­ve the bear away with pep­per­spray. Chan­ces are good that this would have been very effi­ci­ent, saving the bear and making it unli­kely that it would go near a hut again soon. Of cour­se, any attempt to stop an attack­ing polar bear on the open tun­dra with pep­per­spray would be extre­me­ly dan­ge­rous.

determined polar bear

When you meet a deter­mi­ned bear in open ter­rain, you want to have more than pep­per­spray in your hand. The best thing is the safe­ty of a boat, as was the case when this pho­to was taken.

In Sval­bard, polar bears are strict­ly pro­tec­ted and may be shot only in case of direct dan­ger to human life or health. In most recent years, 2-3 polar bears have been shot in self defence in Sval­bard, most­ly by locals or sci­en­tists. Tou­rists, inclu­ding gui­des, are respon­si­ble only for a smal­ler pro­por­ti­on of the­se cases. The num­ber of bears shot in self defence seems actual­ly to be decli­ning, alt­hough more peo­p­le are in the field today, inclu­ding remo­te are­as with hig­her chan­ces of mee­ting polar bears. This is thought to come from a hig­her awa­re­ness and more expe­ri­ence today.

As the latin name Ursus mari­ti­mus alre­a­dy sug­gests, polar bears are mari­ne mammals. They are gre­at swim­mers and can cover distances of many tens of kilo­me­t­res wit­hout any pro­blems; swim­ming distances of more than 100 kilo­me­t­res have been obser­ved. Whe­ther the­se bears will be able to get back to land or ice is ano­ther ques­ti­on. Recent obser­va­tions sug­gest that the­re is increased mor­ta­li­ty due to drow­ning becau­se of unin­ten­tio­nal long-ran­ge swim­ming indu­ced by decre­asing sea ice cover in Alas­ka. It is reasonable to expect a simi­lar situa­ti­on for Sval­bard and this cau­se of death will increase in the future due to cli­ma­te chan­ge with the obvious decrease in the sea ice cover around the islands and else­whe­re in the Arc­tic.

swimming polar bear

Swim­ming polar bear. Tusenøya­ne.

The true habi­tat of polar bears is den­se drift ice. It is the­re and on the ice of fro­zen fjords and bays whe­re they spend most of their life and find their most important prey: Beard­ed seals and Rin­ged seals, of which they need about one per week, or may­be more in the case of smal­ler Rin­ged seals. If neces­sa­ry, well-fed polar bears with a thick lay­er of fat may sur­vi­ve up to eight months wit­hout food!

climbing polar bear

Polar bears can walk immense distances on land and they are good clim­bers. A skil­led hun­ter can also find food on land.

In theo­ry, a male bear never has to go back to land after he is born. Some ani­mals howe­ver stay on land, more or less inten­tio­nal­ly, during the sum­mer and wait for the ice to return. Some of them have adapt­ed quite well and spend the ear­ly sum­mer on small islands, plun­de­ring birds’ nests, or near gla­cier fronts try­ing to catch seals that are lying on small pie­ces of ice. Fema­le bears seem to have stron­ger regio­nal bonds, whe­re­as many males show a very well-deve­lo­ped migra­to­ry beha­viour and cover lar­ge distances, poten­ti­al­ly roa­ming the who­le Arc­tic. Some fjords in Spits­ber­gen seem to have small, more or less sta­tio­na­ry popu­la­ti­ons, for exam­p­le Lief­defjord, Raud­fjord, Storfjord and, in recent years, polar bears were even having out in Bil­lefjord for long peri­ods.

polar bear on drift ice

Polar bear in his ele­ment, the drift ice.

Female polar bear with satellite tracker

Fema­le polar bear with satel­li­te tra­cker.

Polar bears are lon­ers and do not usual­ly tole­ra­te the pre­sence of other polar bears unless the­re is an overa­bun­dance of food, for exam­p­le a bea­ched wha­le. Fema­les stay out of the way of males out­side the mating sea­son, as strong males may kill their off­spring if they are hun­gry or as a pre­cur­sor to mating. Even ful­ly-grown fema­les are not safe from aggres­si­on from their hun­gry, male coun­ter­parts.

Polar bears with whale carcass

Polar bears with wha­le car­cass on Edgeøya. Pay atten­ti­on to the vary­ing shape of the indi­vi­du­al bears.

Bio­lo­gy: Peak mating sea­son is in April and ear­ly May. Fema­les and males stay tog­e­ther for a cou­ple of days for repea­ted mating and then go their ways. Strong males (ten years and older) may mate with seve­ral fema­les, and fema­les do not dis­da­in mating with dif­fe­rent part­ners. The fur­ther deve­lo­p­ment of the fer­ti­li­zed egg is delay­ed until Sep­tem­ber, and in late Decem­ber, two (rare­ly one, very rare­ly three) rat-sized, naked cubs will be born in a snow cave. Important den­ning are­as are in eas­tern parts of Sval­bard, on Edgeøya and Barent­søya, Hopen, Kong Karls Land and Nord­aus­t­land. The hig­hest den­si­ty of dens is on Kong­søya in Kong Karls Land with up to twel­ve dens per squa­re kilo­met­re! The young fami­ly will lea­ve the den in late March or ear­ly April, when the fema­le has not had any food for about four months, but has nur­sed the cubs during the same peri­od. Good hun­ting results are cri­ti­cal and only expe­ri­en­ced mothers will be able to rai­se both cubs to reach an age of one year. The young bears beco­me inde­pen­dent at an age of two and a half years. Mor­ta­li­ty is high again during the first year of inde­pen­dence, until they have got suf­fi­ci­ent hun­ting expe­ri­ence. Once they have sur­vi­ved this stage, they have a reasonable chan­ce to beco­me 15 to 25 years old.

The pre­fer­red food of a polar bear is a seal fresh­ly caught on ice, but they are oppor­tu­nists with an ama­zing ran­ge of tech­nics to find food. They have been seen cat­ching any­thing from wal­rus­ses, white wha­les, seals in open water and reinde­er on open tun­dra to ste­al­ing chicks and eggs from nests. They will take car­ri­on, gar­ba­ge and vege­ta­ti­on – sim­ply any­thing. Their ran­ge of hun­ting and other food fin­ding tac­tics is sur­pri­sing.

Polar bear with black guillemot, Heleysund

Polar bear with black guil­l­emot, Heley­sund. He pro­ba­b­ly found the bird dead.

Polar bear with walrus

Polar bear with wal­rus car­cass, Halv­må­neøya.

Polar bear feeding on vegetation

This polar bear is fee­ding on vege­ta­ti­on under a bird cliff on Barent­søya.

Mis­cel­la­neous: In Sval­bard, polar bears were hun­ted until 1973 when Nor­way fol­lo­wed other arc­tic nati­ons in the pro­tec­tion of this spe­ci­es. Sin­ce then, they have been glo­bal­ly pro­tec­ted, with the excep­ti­on of limi­t­ed hun­ting by nati­ves in Green­land, Cana­da, Alas­ka and Rus­sia. Unfort­u­na­te­ly, ille­gal hun­ting is still part of a polar bear’s real life: 200 to 300 bears fall vic­tim to poa­chers each year in the Rus­si­an Arc­tic. This is, howe­ver, a regio­nal pro­blem wit­hout any impli­ca­ti­ons for the glo­bal popu­la­ti­on which is threa­ten­ed more by cli­ma­te chan­ge and its dra­ma­tic con­se­quen­ces for the ext­ent of the arc­tic drift ice, and by poi­so­ning with envi­ron­men­tal toxins (hea­vy metals, PCBs etc.), that are trans­por­ted by ocea­nic and atmo­sphe­ric curr­ents from indus­tri­al count­ries to the Arc­tic. Con­se­quen­ces include impair­ment of the immu­ne sys­tem and decrease in fer­ti­li­ty and, pos­si­bly, increased mor­ta­li­ty of cubs.

Polar bear surrounded by glacier ice

Polar bear sur­roun­ded by gla­cier ice in Horn­sund.

Polar bear pho­to gal­lery

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.



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last modification: 2019-02-03 · copyright: Rolf Stange