Polar bears are members of the family Ursidae, which includes all types of bears. Polar bears inhabit Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of the world, and they are the only bears that swim. This ability affords them access to the great wealth of Arctic sea life as a food source, and enables the bears to consumer the calorie-rich food they require for survival. Because of their need to use the floating ice near coastal areas as their habitat, changes in climate can adversely affect their feeding range.
Polar Bear Basics
Polar bears are easily recognized by their light-colored white to yellowish-brown coats. They are the largest land carnivore, with males, called boars, weighing up to 1400 pounds, and females, called sows, weighing up to 550 pounds and even more when pregnant. The hind limbs of polar bears are longer than the forelimbs, with large paws that serve almost like snowshoes over ice and snow. These large paws also allow them to swim effectively in icy, Arctic waters. The large, thick claws help the bear to catch and hold prey. Polar bear fur is oily and water-repellent. The bear’s body has a thick layer of fat that helps to insulate them against the cold. They prefer seal meat, but will feed on whatever is available, including fish, bird eggs, rodents, reindeer, waterfowl or berries.
Polar Bear Habitat
The polar bear’s natural habitat is around the area of the North Pole and some at the Pole itself. Generally, most bears generally inhabit areas below 88 degrees north latitude. They visit Labrador, Newfoundland and Norway annually and visit the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Bering Sea when the ice is thick. They live annually as far south as James Bay, Canada.
Range of Habitat
The southernmost range of polar bears is limited by the amount of sea ice available, from which the bears can hunt for food. They also prefer traveling on ice, and so are generally found in coastal regions. Areas with leads, which are channels in the ice that remain open, and polynyas, small open areas of water, are the most likely places where polar bears can be found. They migrate year-round through loosely defined home areas that will provide access to food, mates and dens for their young. Seasonal migration to find suitable habitat also occurs, and some bears may travel up to 50 miles per day.
Threats to Polar Bear Habitats
Over recent years, scientists have recorded a decrease in polar bear populations due to the reduction of suitable habitat. Because polar bears depend on the availability of sea ice for both migrations and feeding, the reduction in ice pack impacts their ability to survive, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Human intrusion into habits, oil development, the creation of shipping lanes all adversely affect the ice pack that forms the basis of the polar bear habitat. Climate change is yet another factor that creates diminished sea ice and survival problems for adult bears and their cubs.
Conservation Efforts To Protect Polar Bear Habitats
Many conservation groups study the needs of the polar bear population to provide statistical data to present to governments that have polar bear habitats within their boundaries. This data has led to legislation that helps to limit development in vital areas and provide legal protection for the animals so that they can continue to survive in these regions of the world.