Polar Bear

« Back to Mammals



© Julie Larsen Maher, Wildlife Conservation Society


The threatened polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is one of the most unique and recognizable mammals in the arctic.  They have a keen sense of smell that they use to track prey; they can even smell seal "breathing holes" from a mile away!  Polar bears are solitary, unless they are with their cubs.  They have been observed traveling great distances, sometimes using pieces of ice to float across bodies of water, in search of food and shelter.  The current population ranges through several countries including the U.S. (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Denmark, and Norway.

The greatest threats affecting polar bears are human-related and include their being hunted and starvation from the effects of climate disruption.  Polar bears were hunted extensively for their meat and fur in the 1960's and 1970's, reducing their in-situ population to an estimated 5,000 individuals.  Although international hunting regulations have aided in their recovery, populations continue to face increasing threats from pollution and climate disruption. Rapid increases in temperature are causing the arctic ice to melt, which reduces the sea ice habitats polar bears need for survival. If current trends continue, many environmental experts predict that polar bears will go extinct in the wild within the foreseeable future.

The AZA Bear Taxon Advisory Group and the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan® Program manage over 100 polar bears at 44 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.  AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums partner with like-minded conservation organizations, such as Polar Bears International, to urge legislators to provide the polar bear additional protection as a threatened species. This became a reality on May 14, 2008 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the polar bear as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This listing reinforces the harmful effects that climate disruption has on species’ population health worldwide.  AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums continue to work with local and national government agencies to increase public awareness of the issues threatening polar bears and promote support for their conservation.

The AZA Conservation Endowment Fund has provided over $22,000 to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens to monitor reproductive hormones to better time breeding opportunities and to improve methods of diagnosing pregnancy.

Polar Bear Facts

Status      Threatened
Size Males can be up to 9 feet tall and weigh as much as 1300 pounds.  Although females are smaller, they can be up to 6 feet tall and weigh as much 650 pounds.
Polar bears have what appears to be white or yellowish fur with black foot pads and nose. Their fur actually consists of clear, hollow tubes that reflect light and appear white.  On sunny days, these trap the sun’s heat and keep the bear warm.
Habitat These bears live on broken edges of arctic ice and on ice floats in the arctic waters.
Diet Their diets consist of ringed seals and bearded seals, but also may include other marine mammals and waterfowl.
Breeding Polar bears breed in the spring between March and June.  Cubs stay with their mothers for over 2 years, so females only breed every 3 years or so.  Polar bears typically have 2 cubs at a time.