Many thanks to Elise Lockton, our excellent and very knowledgeable guide in Churchill, Manitoba and Natural Habitat adventures. Having an opportunity to explore part of the second largest wetland in the world – the Hudson Bay lowlands was an incredible experience this past November. We watched the polar bears as they waited for the ice to form on Hudson Bay. I experienced the cold, northwest winds of the subarctic and on the final day of the trip, the ice formed. We watched the bears as they began to head out onto the ice, in search of seals.
Read my Polar Bear Poem: “Realm of the Polar Bear”
Fun fact: The word arctic comes from the Greek word arktos, which means bear. Antarctic means “without bears”.
Polar Bear Senses
A polar bear’s sense of sight and ability to hear are equal to a human’s. They have an excellent sense of smell and can detect a seal that is more than 32 km away. Polar bears can also sniff out seal dens that are covered by 1 metre of snow and ice.
Polar Bear Tracks
This hind track had a width of 21 cm (8 inches) and a length of 28 cm (11 inches). The wind speed was 24 km/h from the Northwest and the edge of the track could have changed as a result of blowing snow. The fore paws of polar bears on average, are 23 cm (9 inches) wide and 15 cm (5 and 3/4 inches) long. Hind paws are 23 cm (9 in) wide and 33 cm (13 in) long. The edges of the track appear “fringed” which is most likely evidence of very furry paws. There is also an arc in the track where the toes register, similar to black bear feet.
Polar Bear Gait
The soles of Polar Bear feet are covered with dense pads of fur. This keeps their feet warm and gives them good traction while walking on the ice. When walking, polar bears look like they are wearing very comfy, quiet slippers. When a polar bear walks, the larger (in length) hind print registers on or behind the smaller fore print.
They also walk with their toes pointed inwards (slightly pigeon-toed). They walk at a speed of 5-6 km/hr. Polar bears can run as fast as 40 km/hr for a short distance. However, they expend at least twice the amount of energy used by other mammals when running. They prefer to amble along at a slow pace to conserve energy and to avoid overheating.
Polar Bear Fur
This photo is amusing. A variety of funny captions could creatively describe the interaction taking place between these two sparring bears. In my mind, the bear on the right is saying, “I love your new coat!” which conveniently leads into this paragraph on polar bear fur:)
Polar bear hair appears white to yellow in colour. The natural pigment, melanin gives colour to hair. The absence of melanin makes hair hollow and white. This hollow tube fills up with air and is warmed by the body, providing insulation for animals such as polar bears, arctic hares, arctic foxes and to some extent, opossums. Polar bears have guard hairs that are oily. These hairs repel frost and protect the bear’s downy underfur from getting wet when they are swimming. Another adaptation that polar bear’s have to survive cold weather is their black skin. The black skin of a polar bear absorbs light and converts it to heat.
Polar Bear Skull and Claw Cast
Top to bottom, can you figure out which claw belongs to what type of bear? All three bears can be found in North America.
Answer: The top claw is from a black bear. The middle claw is from a polar bear. The bottom claw is from a grizzly bear. The polar bear claw is uniquely shaped to provide traction on the ice and to enable the bear to catch and hold its prey.
Polar Bear Maternity Den
This den was facing Southeast towards the Deer River. It was sheltered from the predominant, cold, Northwest winds. The den had been dug into a hillside. The interior of the den was a mixture of soft soil, peat and sphagnum moss. Nearby, Wapusk National Park protects one of the world’s largest denning areas for polar bears. This park is located 45km south of Churchill. Wapask means white bear in the Cree language. Only pregnant female polar bears den for long periods of time. Denning begins in early winter (October or November). Females give birth to 1-4 cubs in December or January. The cubs will be ready to leave the den in late March or April after growing quickly on their mother’s rich, fatty milk. The mother and her cubs will then travel across the tundra and out onto the sea ice to hunt for seals. Polar bear moms do not eat for up to 8 months of the year! It is very important that the ice remains frozen on Hudson Bay in March and April so that the mother polar bear and her cubs can find seals to eat.
Cubs continue to den with their mother for one or two more winters. Female polar bears usually have a litter of cubs every 3-4 years. Mating season extends from late March to mid-July. Development of the embryo begins in September.
Polar Bear Behaviour
Welcome to the section about what polar bears do while waiting for the ice to form on Hudson Bay, Manitoba!
Male polar bears like to spar or playfight with other male polar bears. I watched a polar bear approach another bear that was resting in a daybed. The approaching bear started off low to the ground with his eyes closed. He began to nudge the other bear gently with the side of his head. The resting bear sat up on his haunches and took a slightly higher profile to the approaching bear. Both bears began to “mouth” each other playfully.
The bears paused their playfighting to look around and blink their eyes sleepily. The resting bear gave a yawn and then appeared to wipe his right eye with his massive paw. The other bear seized this momentary distraction by continuing his approach more enthusiastically. He outstretched his right paw and put it on the resting bear’s shoulder. He then switched paws and placed his left paw on the resting bear’s shoulder. The resting bear opened his mouth wide and began to chew on the approaching bear’s neck. The approaching bear stood up on all fours and forcefully pushed the shoulder of the resting bear with his left paw, sending the resting bear backwards. From this position, the approaching bear had a better chewing vantage on the resting bear’s exposed belly. Both bears were soon wrestling on the snowy ground (see photo above). This playfighting progressed to upright sparring and impressive bear hugs. Amazingly, the bears were very quiet during this encounter. I learned that in October and November, male polar bears have very low testosterone. This enables them to play gently and respectfully with oneanother. Playfighting also helps them work out “who is dominant” before potentially dangerous encounters on the ice when testosterone levels spike in January and February.
Males come off of the ice in July and head out onto the ice in November. Ice formation in November is very important for the bears so that they can hunt seals and replenish their fat reserves. They spend approximately 4-5 months in walking hibernation before the ice forms.
We watched this bear use his great big, paddle-like forepaws to dig into the snow and shovel out a circular day bed to sleep in.
Some bears prefer to rest on their backs.
Polar Bear Traps and Polar Bear Jail
It is hard to believe that these loveable bears can be extremely dangerous. In fact, it is hard to walk around the periphery of Churchill without finding one of these warning signs:
In Churchill, there is a Polar Bear Patrol that monitors rogue bears that come into town. If a bear is spotted, the patrol unit uses a “banger” which emits a loud sound to try to encourage the bear to leave town. If this does not work, a trap is set. There is a bag inside the trap that has been dipped in seal oil. This smell attracts the rogue polar bear to the trap.
Once trapped, the bear is then brought to the Polar Bear Jail. Polar bears are kept in jail for a maximum of 30 days. If the ice on Hudson Bay forms during this time, then the bear is transported by truck to the ice and released. If the ice has not yet formed after 30 days, the bears are transported by helicopter up along the shore of the bay and released far from town. This is a much more expensive alternative.
For more information on polar bears, visit these recommended web-sites: