The International Polar Bear Day

Polar Bear Babies - SvalbardToday, February 27th, is the International Polar Bear Day – and this vulnerable and majestic animal has become a powerful symbol in the fight against climate change. USA (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland) and Norway (Svalbard) have a special responsibility for the conservation of the approximately 25.000 remaining individuals.

But what do you really know about the polar bear? Here you will find information from the Norwegian Polar Institute which does research in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are the largest species of bear in the world. Compared to other bears polar bears have: a long narrow head; a head that is relatively small compared to the body; small, heavily furred ears; claws that are short and strong; canine teeth that are long; and cheek teeth that are sharper. These features have been selected for in polar bears as a consequence of their almost purely carnivorous way of life. The polar bear has a circumpolar distribution, but is largely restricted to areas that have sea ice during a significant part of the year. Polar bears are typically off-white in colour, but vary from grey, through shades of white to yellow.

 Polar Bear - Svalbard

Polar bears are the largest species of bear in the world. They are markedly sexually dimorphic, with males being larger than females. Males weigh between 300-700 kg while females weigh 150-350 kg. The length of adult polar bears varies from 180 to 260 cm. Weight varies dramatically seasonally, especially among females that can more than double their body weight from the spring to the late summer. Polar bears are typically off-white in colour, but vary from grey, through shades of white to yellow. Adult males can be distinguished from females on the basis of their larger size, but more reliably on their more powerful necks that look wider than their heads. Compared to other bears polar bears have: a long narrow head; a head that is relatively small compared to the body; small, heavily furred ears; claws that are short and strong; canine teeth that are long; and cheek teeth that are sharper. These features have been selected for in polar bears as a consequence of their almost purely carnivorous way of life

 

Distribution

The polar bear has a circumpolar distribution, but is largely restricted to areas that have sea ice during a significant part of the year. They live in Canada, Alaska (USA), Greenland, the Russian Arctic, the Norwegian Arctic, and on areas of the ice shelf surrounding the North Pole. They occur as far south as 50°N in James Bay, Canada. There are approximately 20 different populations of polar bears in the Arctic, that together contain approximately 25,000 bears. Individual bears roam over large areas, and populations are therefore well connected.

 Polar Bear - Distribution

In Svalbard, most bears are found in areas with sea ice. The western part of Spitsbergen therefore has low densities of bears most of the year, while higher densities are found along the east coast, and also in the fjords to the north. Many bears hunt at glacier fronts in the fjords in the spring because ringed seal lairs are concentrated in such areas. The most important denning areas for polar bears in Svalbard are located on Kongsøya, Svenskeøya, Edgeøya, Nordaustlandet and Hopen. In Svalbard, some bears have small home ranges of a few hundred square kilometres where they hunt on the sea ice in the spring; during summer these bears wait on land for the sea ice to freeze again. Other bears follow the retreat of the sea ice and move north-east or east in the summer, hunting at the ice edge or in Franz Josef Land in Russia. The Barents Sea population of polar bears includes animals that den in both Svalbard and Franz Josef Land. Movement westwards to Greenland, or from Greenland to Svalbard, seem to be quite restricted.

 

Management status and monitoring

Polar bear hunting was banned in Svalbard in 1973, after 100 years of intensive exploitation. The population has recovered significantly in recent decades. Some bears are killed each year in Svalbard in defence of people or property; these encounters between bears and man have increased in recent years concomitant with increased human traffic within the archipelago.

According to the Polar Bear Treaty Norway shall “take appropriate action to protect the ecosystems of which polar bears are a part, with special attention to habitat components such as denning and feeding sites and migration patterns, and shall manage polar bear populations in accordance with sound conservation practices based on the best available scientific data”.

 

- Read the whole article here.

Norwegian explorer Ragnar Thorseth and his family meet a hungry and curious polar bear during his expedition to Svalbard (1987 – 88).

Text by: Thor Bugge Lanesskog

Source: The Norwegian Polar Institute

Photos by: The Norwegian Polar Institute

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Categories: Nature

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