Why don’t polar bears eat penguins? I must admit that when I suggested this title to the steward, it was a joke. It’s a riddle that I ask my Marine Studies students every year and surprisingly most cannot figure out the answer. The answer is only about fifteen words long but this article has to be a minimum of 400 words, so you, dear reader, will have to wait (or cheat and skip to the bottom of the article).
My students come up with all sorts of answers. Polar bears don’t like the taste of penguins and prefer to eat seals or walruses instead. Penguins swim way too fast or polar bears are too slow to catch the slippery little devils. Penguins are smarter than polar bears. Polar bears like bigger prey. All sorts of anwers except the obvious one. Well, that is what makes it a riddle. Most riddles have obvious answers once you know. It’s not quite so obvious when you don’t know.
Perhaps this question deserves a myth. Once upon a time, polar bears ate penguins. The poor little penguins were being hunted to extinction. So the Chief Penguin called a meeting of all the penguins. What to do? How could they save penguins from being eaten by the big bad polar bears? They talked and talked, discussed and argued, but after three long summer days, each 23 hours long, they were no closer to a solution than they had been at the start of the meeting. The penguins were depressed. They all sat around with heads drooping. They were doomed.
Then the littlest, most insignificant penguin waddled up to the Chief Penguin. This little penguin had been born with a bad flipper and could barely swim. He had been bitten by a polar bear and it had nearly ripped off his other flipper. He was no longer able to catch fish and was weak from hunger. He knew he could never survive the winter.
“I know that I cannot grow up to have children of my own,” he said to the Chief Penguin. ” I want to do something to help all the other penguins. I want to make a difference in my short life. Cover me in pepper and I will eat pepper too. Then I will let the polar bear catch me. I will taste so bad that no polar bear will ever want to eat penguins again.”
The penguins were all amazed at the bravery of the little penguin. The Chief Penguin said “if you do this, you will be remembered forever by the penguins of the world!” All the penguins clapped and cheered. The little penguin ate the pepper and covered himself in more pepper and went out to meet the polar bear. The polar bear grabbed him and ate him in one bite but then choked and coughed and spewed. He went back to the other polar bears and told them that penguins were poisonous and after that, no polar bear has ever eaten another penguin. After that, the penguins all lived happily ever after…
The real answer is much more mundane: polar bears are only found in the Arctic while penguins are only found in the Antarctic. They are separated by thousands of miles of warm water so no polar bear has even seen a penguin. I told you the answer was obvious once you knew it!