Home » Wildlife » Polar bears » Top 10 polar bear facts

Top 10 polar bear facts

Polar bears are at risk from an increasing number of threats including climate change and oil and gas exploration.

We're helping protect polar bears in a number of ways.

We're supporting field research in and around the Arctic - helping reduce impacts on the bears, their habitat and their prey - especially from the effects of a warming planet. Working to reduce human / bear conflict as declining sea ice brings them more frequently into contact with human settlements. And generally spreading the word about this fantastic animal… 

Two polar bears on a piece of ice in the Artic Ocean

Fact 1: Hunting isn't the biggest threat to polar bears

Unlike some other at-risk mammals (such as tigers and rhinos), hunting is not the biggest threat to polar bears right now. They used to be heavily hunted, from the 1600s right through to the mid-1970s, but then strict regulations and quotas were agreed internationally to protect the survival of the species. 

Fact 2: By far the biggest threat to polar bears now is climate change

Global warming means sea ice is melting earlier and forming later each year, leaving polar bears less time to hunt.

Studies show polar bear litters are also decreasing in size because of sea ice decline. Many scientists believe polar bears could be gone from most of their current range within 100 years. 

Polar bear

Fact 3: Polar bears are classified as ‘vulnerable’

The polar bear is officially classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN - although the US government recently listed it as “threatened” under its own (slightly different) system.

There are 20-25,000 polar bears in 19 groups across the Arctic area, more than half in northern Canada.  

Polar bear, head close-up portrait of an adult male

Fact 4: Polar bears actually have black skins and colourless hair

Their thick, hollow hairs reflect light to give its white-looking coat.

Not only does this act as great camouflage in the snow, but it also makes very effective insulation. 

Polar bear shaking off snow

Fact 5: Polar bears clean themselves by rolling in snow.

Polar bears like to keep themselves clean - probably because it helps the insulating properties of their fur. After feeding they’ll usually wash by taking a swim or rolling in the snow.

As odd as it might sound - for an animal that lives on ice - but polar bears often get hot and will roll in the snow to cool off. 

Polar bear jumping on ice

Fact 6: Polar bears overheat

Despite their harsh environment polar bears can overheat.

They're superbly adapted to survive the Arctic temperatures (which can dip to -50C), but the disadvantage is the risk of overheating - especially when running -or in "balmy" above-freezing summer temperatures. 

Polar bear diving

Fact 7: Polar bears are excellent swimmers

Their Latin name actually means "sea bear".

They can comfortably swim at around 6mph, using their front paws like oars while their hind legs are held flat like a rudder. 

Polar bear sniffing the air

Fact 8: Polar bears can smell seals one kilometer away

Polar bears have a pretty good sense of smell!

They can detect seals - their main food - from almost 1km away.

Young Polar bear

Fact 9: Polar bear cubs weight the same as guinea pigs

When first born, a polar bear cub is about the weight of an adult guinea pig.

A cub stays near its mother for about two years. By the time it’s fully grown it can weigh over 500kg.  

Polar bear

Fact 10: Less than 2% of a polar bear’s hunts are successful

Despite their reputation as fearsome hunters - they’re the most carnivorous of the bear family - they expend a lot of energy in the process.

All that time and energy spent finding food will only increase as Arctic sea ice disappears and their prey (mostly seals) become harder to find. 

How you can help protect polar bears