Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Map

The Great White Polar Bear

The polar bear (Ursus Maritimus, translating as the sea bear) is the world’s largest and most powerful carnivore. The Inuit call him Nanuq or Nanook. It is rightly considered to be the most intelligent of all the Arctic’s creatures. If you encounter one, better beware and decide your line of defence or attack immediately, as the white polar bear can react and act very quickly indeed. Without a gun no human is capable of besting a polar bear. All you can do is run and try to escape, but its speed across the ice is deceptively fast and it has great stamina and tenacity and rarely will you escape unless it decides not to pursue you.

The adult male can weigh over 650 kg and reach a height resting on its four paws of more than a metre at its shoulder. The females average less than half the male’s weight and have narrower skulls but are still as deadly. Polar bears have a small black snout which vividly stands out against the whiteness of their fur. (Brown bears are only one third of the size of polar bears and they often have a small white patch on their chests and are mostly vegetarian).

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Map Photo Gallery

An adult polar bear can easily kill a full-grown seal, weighing 150 kg, with one single blow. As autumn approaches and the big freeze occurs it is particularly lean and hungry and impatient to hunt after the months of forced summer fasting. It can smell a seal several kilometres downwind. The polar bears are also strong and powerful swimmers, have huge feet and partly-webbed paws. They have even been seen swimming some 80 km from the nearest land or ice floe. Polar bears don’t slip on the ice, even at speed, as they have pads on the feet covered with small, soft papillae like coarse sandpaper, which increases the friction with the ice while small depressions in the sole act as suction cups.

Polar bears are meat eaters and have the fierce and very sharp teeth (42 in total) necessary for tearing at their victims as well as shearing them and clipping them. The one creature that is relatively unafraid of the bear is the Arctic Fox. It often follows in the wake of Nanook to feed on the scraps left from its hunting. Apart from their more normal prey of fish, seal and walrus, bears will attack anything. There are many instances when they have damaged whales so much that they have been able to drag them out of the water on to the ice to eat them. They are extremely cunning and have been known to stalk their prey in a variety of disguises including pretending to be a large piece of floating ice, sliding forward very slowly on their chests. If they sight a quarry they freeze instantly, sometimes for ten minutes whilst they plan how to get close enough to attack. They are able to move so slowly that it is not possible to see any actual movement.

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