Distribution and Abundance
Polar bears are found on the ice-covered waters of the circumpolar Arctic. They prefer areas of annual ice that occur over the shallower waters of the continental shelf, which are more biologically productive than deeper waters of the polar basin. Polar bears occur in 19 relatively discrete subpopulations (12 in Canadian territory). The total number of polar bears worldwide has been estimated to be 20 000-25 000. In Canada, polar bears are found in Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Ontario, Québec and Yukon.
Polar bears feed primarily on ringed seals and, to a lesser degree, bearded seals. They will also kill harbour seals, harp seals, hooded seals, and occasionally WALRUS and BELUGA WHALES. Polar bears catch SEALS when they surface at breathing holes, by stalking basking seals hauled out on the sea ice, and by breaking into the birth lairs of ringed seals. In areas such as HUDSON BAY, the SEA ICE melts completely each summer, forcing all bears to come ashore and wait for the ice to reform. While onshore, polar bears use their fat stores to meet energetic costs. Although some polar bears will eat berries, grasses and other food items while onshore, it is thought that these do not provide significant nutritional benefit.
Polar bears have high cultural and economic importance to Aboriginal groups throughout the Arctic. The conservation of polar bears is guided by the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, which was signed by all 5 polar bear nations - Canada, Denmark, Norway, United States and the former USSR (now Russia). Internationally, the polar bear is listed as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The COMMITTEE ON THE STATUS OF ENDANGERED SPECIES IN CANADA (COSEWIC) has reviewed the status of the polar bear in Canada and assessed it as a species of "special concern." Following a period of consultation and a recommendation from the federal minister of the environment, the governor-in-council will decide on whether or not to list the polar bear under the Species at Risk Act.
Historically, the Arctic marine ECOSYSTEM was assumed to be relatively stable and predictable over the long-term. However, the Arctic is warming, annual and multi-year sea ice cover is declining, and sea ice thickness is decreasing as a consequence of CLIMATE CHANGE. The polar bear is a highly specialized species dependent on sea ice and is therefore particularly vulnerable to alteration of its environment. Changes in sea ice are already known to have resulted in decreased numbers and productivity of some subpopulations of polar bears. Loss of sea ice habitat is the most critical conservation concern for polar bears.
PERSISTENT ORGANIC POLLUTANTS (POPs) are also of concern. These chemical substances are products of human industrial activity and do not easily break down by natural processes. If released into the environment, POPs can travel great distances by air and water from where they were produced. They tend to accumulate in polar regions, such as the Arctic, where they are readily stored in the fatty tissues of animals. Although the effects on polar bears are only partially understood, levels in some polar bear subpopulations are already sufficiently high that they may interfere with hormone regulation, immune system function and possibly reproduction.
Additional potential threats to polar bears include oil exploration and development (such as in the BEAUFORT SEA), other resource exploration, increased development, ice-breaking and shipping. In general, knowledge about the potential effects of these activities on polar bear subpopulations is lacking.
Author NICHOLAS J. LUNN
Links to Other Sites
See a description of the natural history and typical habitat of the polar bear in Canada. From the "Hinterland Who's Who" website. Also includes video clips, summaries of related conservation issues, and educational resources.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) determines the national status of wild Canadian species, subspecies, varieties or other designatable units that are suspected of being at risk of extinction or extirpation.
Canadian Biodiversity Website
A great information source for all budding biologists. Learn about biodiversity theory, natural history, and conservation issues. From McGill’s Redpath Museum.
The website for the Town of Churchill, Manitoba. Check out the many recreational opportunites includng tours and places for viewing polar bears, whales, and the Aurora Borealis.
The Arctic Portal is the Internet gateway for numerous international programs about environmental and economic issues in the Arctic.
Polar Bears International
The website for Polar Bears International, an organization dedicated to the conservation of polar bear populations and their habitat. Offers everything you want to know about polar bear research, biology, and behavior.
Infanticide and Cannibalism of Juvenile Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) in Svalbard
A brief paper about possible explanations for incidents of infanticide and cannibalism observed in polar bears. From the journal "Arctic," the Arctic Institute of North America.
The website for Arctic Mission, a scientific voyage through the Arctic’s fabled North-West Passage. Features interactive maps, videos, photos and written observations about the landscape, climate, and wildlife that inhabit this region. From the National Film Board.
IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group
An extensive information source about worldwide polar bear populations and related ecological issues. Easy to understand explanations of research methods, scientific article abstracts, and more. Click on "News" for the latest reports. From the Polar Bear Specialist Group, the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
View an online collection of Paul Nicklen's outstanding nature photographs. Click on each image to access photos of seals, polar bears, whales, walruses, Arctic landscapes, and much more. Note: requires Flash Player.
Check out Sikunews for daily coverage of the top stories around the circumpolar world. Search for news items about specific issues and locations in the Canadian Arctic.
Polar Bear Cam
See live streaming from a "Tundra Buggy" that roves the tundra tracking polar bears and other native species in the Churchill, Manitoba, region during daylight hours. From the explore.org website.
The website for the Town of Churchill in Manitoba. Described as the "polar bear capital of the world." Check out the numerous outdoor recreational opportunities in the region.
The truth about polar bears
An article about contemporary challenges facing polar bear populations in Canada. From the Canadian Geographic website.