Picking a day to celebrate one cause or another has become a fun and popular trend — and February 27th is now International Polar Bear Day! Polar Bears, without doubt, deserve an international spotlight shined upon them not only because they are extraordinary animals, but also because it is our collective global inaction on climate change and pollution that is threatening their very survival.
So, in honor of International Polar Bear day let us look at some of the quirky little known facts about this beloved and iconic polar beast.
1. Polar bears have see-through fur.
Ask any child what color a polar bear is and s/he will exclaim, “white” with great enthusiasm, but truth be told, their fur is actually transparent and holds no color. It only appears white because it reflects visible light. They’re nearly invisible under infrared photography. Polar bear skin, surprisingly however, is black! To humans and other creatures that see only in visible light, polar bears nearly blend in seamlessly with their snowy environment. However, reindeer have outsmarted the polar bear’s tricky fur by evolving a visual system than can see in ultraviolent light, which means polar bears stand out like a sore thumb against their icy white backdrop.
In zoos you may have noticed that polar bears have almost yellow or green-tinged fur. The yellowing of the fur is due to age and dirt, while the greenish color is from the algae that can grow on polar bear fur in unnaturally warm and humid environments.
2. Polar bears do not hibernate.
Unlike many of their cousins further south, polar bears do not hibernate through the winter. A mother polar bear does use a den to give birth to and raise her cubs (typically between January and March). To accommodate this homebound period, mama polar bears do engage in hibernation-like behavior such as refraining from eating, drinking and defecating.
3. Male polar bears can weigh the equivalent of a dozen men and be 11 feet tall.
At the San Diego Zoo, their polar bear exhibit includes a life-size male polar bear standing on its hind legs. My 6-year old daughter stood next to this impressive 11 foot statue and was absolutely dwarfed — scarily so. A typical adult male polar bear weighs between 775 and 1,200 pounds (351 to 544 kilograms), or the weight of about a half-dozen men. However, according to Polar Bear National, the biggest polar bear ever recorded was a male weighing a whopping 2,209 pounds (1,000 kg) equal to about a dozen men. By contrast, adult females typically weigh about half of the average male tipping the scales at a measly (by polar bear standards) 330 to 650 pounds (50 to 295 kg).
4. Polar Bears are very tiny when they are born.
Hard to believe but that 2,2029 pound bear mentioned above started life as a one-pounder (0.5 kg). The mother keeps the cubs in the den until they reach about 22-33 pounds (10-15 kilograms). The males take 8 -14 years to reach their adult size. Females reach full size around ages 5 and 6. The cubs nurse for about 2/12 years.
5. Polar Bears can go days, even weeks, without eating — and often do.
To adapt to an environment where food is not always abundantly available, polar bears know how manage famine. If a polar bear is unsuccessful catching dinner for more than seven to 10 days, its metabolism will slow down until it finds its next meal.
During this time they survive off of their fat reserves, which is why the fatty ringed and bearded seals are a polar bear’s favorite entree. Sadly, climate change is making food harder to find and some bears are adapting by regularly cannibalizing their own kind.
6. Polar Bears can sniff out their dinner 20 miles away.
Polar bear noses are highly attuned sensory organs that put a blood hound’s sniffer to shame — when detecting the next meal, anyhow. A polar bear can track an icebound seal up to 20 miles (32 kilometers) away, and can sniff-out a seal’s breathing hole in the ice more than half a mile away, even if the seal is absent. That must be quite the tease at zoos when a polar bear’s lunch might just be a few hundred feet away, yet always unattainable.
7. Two-thirds of polar bears could disappear by 2050
Thanks to human inaction on climate change, our planet continues to heat and polar sea ice continues to shrink and melt. Polar bears depend upon sea ice to hunt, and studies predict our planet will warm to the point where enough sea ice annually melts to lead to the disappearance of two-thirds of polar bears by 2050. The current decline in sea ice is already forcing polar bears to swim such long distances that they are drowning from exhuastion.
8. Common household chemicals are being found in polar bear brains.
Again, thanks to humans, perFluoroAlkyl Substances (PFASs), Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) and their precursors, which are resistant to thermal, biological and chemical degradation are bioaccumulating in polar bears. PCBs were banned in the United States in 1979 due in large part to their role in cancer and as a neurotoxin, but prior to that they were widely used as coolants and plastizers in household items such as paint and cement and as a stabilizing agent for countless other products. PFASs are found in coatings for textiles, paper products, carpets, upholstery as well as food packaging that are water, oil and soil repellent. These nasty chemcials are also found in pharmaceuticals, cleaning products and fire-fighting foams. The problem with PFSAs is that many of them are known or suspected neurotoxins and/or carcinogens. The good news is PFASs have not been produced in the western world since 2002 but the bad news is, China loves them and despite their ban in the west, scientists have measured a ten-fold increase in production and use since 2002.
Even though the United States listed polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008, and Canada and Russia listed them as a species of special concern, all of this listing will be for naught is climate change is not halted. Sadly, there may be a day in the future where the only bears to celebrate on February 27th will be the ones in the zoo.
Of course, it does not have to be this way. The threat to polar bears is human-caused and thus the solution is human-based. Maybe it is time for polar-bear friendly labeling, just as there is dolphin-friendly labeling. Maybe, international pressure needs to mount on China with regards to PFAS. Maybe, U.S. citizens must sue to the EPA for not addressing climate change and thus not upholding the Endangered Species Act. We have the power to alter the course of the polar bear and ensure it this iconic species of the arctic has a happy ending. But the question is will we?