Pardon the pun, but a polar bear is quite the cool creature. But outside of the fact that global warming is most definitely affecting the sea ice territories of these massive and enigmatic carnivores, how much do most of us really know about these animals and the intricacies of how they operate in the natural world?
For example, a polar bear has a legendary sense of smell. Its nose is so sensitive that it can smell a seal more than 20 miles away! It can also expertly sniff out seal dens that are covered by 3 feet of ice and snow. When it does hunt down a seal, an adult bear’s stomach has plenty of room for the feast, as it has a capacity to hold more than 150 pounds of food at a time—and the bear will still need to eat that much again a few days later if it wants to maintain its weight. But an overlooked part in the world of interesting polar bear facts is how they manage to communicate vocally. Imagine spotting a polar bear up close from your Polar Rover vehicle in the Arctic of Churchill, Manitoba. Can you imagine what bear sounds you may hear in that scenario?
Polar bears live quiet and solitary lives most of the time, but when they need to communicate, they do have a range of vocalizations. The polar bear’s sounds include moaning, jaw-chopping, growling, blowing, hissing, whimpering, throaty rumblings, braying, squalling, smacking, roaring and chuffing. In easier terms, they can often sound kind of like an unclear tiger or lion attempting to roar (and kind of failing miserably), and they often end up sounding a bit more like an elephant. The attempted roaring is usually a call of excitement and only happens when they are in a fairly good mood. When they want to show aggression, it turns more into jaw-chopping and growling.
Chuffing, though, is an amped step up from aggression and is a downright angry-sounding noise that is used surprisingly often. While they do their best to try to avoid fighting, a mother bear will chuff when she has to defend her cubs against an intruder. Female bears become very vocal in the first few months after they emerge from their maternity dens in order to scare away any threats. It’s a sound they make with an open mouth and is also reserved for emergency situations of distress. An example would be if one of the members gets separated from the group, they would most likely bust out a repeated chuffing call. This is practiced from an early age. Polar bear cubs separate from their mother after about one year, sometimes two years. During this moment of separation, the mom will often chuff, and scientists have noticed that when she chuffs the cubs know to respond to her call by heading closer to her. When they are first born, baby polar bears make a unique humming sound and they also chuckle when they are nursing. Cubs tend to vocalize much more often than their parents.
The adult males distance themselves and live a solitary life after mating (they chuff when they fight to win over their partner and moan during copulation) but when the same male returns to the female, usually after 2 years or so, the mom, dad and cubs all begin to chuff together.
There’s a big difference between trying to imagine these bear sounds, or watching videos on youtube, and then actually hearing them in person. A male grunt used when he is in the mood to mate can be heard from hundreds of feet away (and a female who is interested in him will often respond with her own grunts). On our Nat Hab expedition to Churchill, you have the opportunity to hear many polar bear sounds while accompanied by a skilled Expedition Leader who can explain the bears’ behavior. Though our Polar Rover vehicles are made for up to 35 passengers, we take only a maximum of 16, meaning you will always have a window seat and plenty of space to move about in order to get the very best vantage point for bear watching. It is not uncommon for us to be able to observe mothers with cubs. Her cubs will tag along with her everywhere she goes, even scrambling for a piggyback ride as she swims in the Hudson Bay (the gigantic forepaws of a polar bear are up to 12 inches in diameter and have partially webbed toes, making them great swimmers). We often get the chance to see young males play-fighting. A male polar bear starts play fighting by going up to another male with its head down, mouth closed and eyes averted. The bears start to make physical contact by gently touching or “mouthing” each other around the face and neck. They then proceed to rear up on their hind legs and eventually try to push each other down with their big forepaws.
If lucky, we can sometimes catch the polar bears feeding. Their diet consists primarily of sea mammals, ringed seals being a favorite. They also go for bearded seals and occasionally walrus, beluga whales and narwhal. Needing to get as many calories into their system as possible, they can also supplement their diet with coastline carrion, including crabs, fish and marooned whales, as well as geese, bird eggs and small mammals.
As if hanging out with polar bears wasn’t enough, the nighttime skies in and around Churchill might just reward you with a northern lights display in green, red or violet. While this phenomenon is never a guarantee, we will always keep our fingers crossed. Churchill lies directly beneath the Auroral Oval in the Northern Hemisphere, a privileged location that helps support auroral activity on over 300 nights a year.
Unfortunately, we’ve all seen the news images of skinny polar bears stranded on sea ice. These majestic animals have sadly become iconic poster animals of a rapidly changing climate. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at least twice as fast as the global average and sea ice cover is diminishing by nearly four percent per decade. The loss of sea ice affects polar bears’ ability to find food, as they use the sea ice to be able to hunt their favorite food of ringed seals, which give them two-thirds of the energy they need for the entire year in late spring and early summer. With the ice retreating, the bears have less chance to hunt the most important prey in their diet. Other tragic impacts of global warming are increases in contamination and exposure to diseases, and unusually warm weather in winter can cause dens to collapse, which females build to birth and protect their young.
Who knows how much longer we will be able to observe these creatures in their current habitat. If you have any interest in hanging out with polar bears in their natural environment, consider booking an expedition to the Arctic to spend time with these beautiful animals sooner rather than later.