It Blends with the Snow

It Blends with the Snow

The polar bear is the largest member of the bear family and one of the largest of all land carnivores. The males average seven to eight feet long and weigh 900 pounds, although many are larger; females average 700 pounds. The largest polar bear on record weighed an incredible 2,210 pounds, a white colossus whose wanderings were centered around the North Pole.

The polar bear is a wanderer by nature. Once a land mammal, it is now, in a sense, an animal that followed its mobile food supply to sea and never returned permanently to land. It ranges throughout the frozen Arctic and may, in its lifetime, travel farther than any other four—footed animal in the world. Some males are believed to ride ice floes all of their lives without ever setting foot on land.

Polar bears are strong swimmers, cruising leisurely at six miles per hour using only the front legs and with hind legs trailing. They have been seen swimming over 200 miles from the nearest land, and they appear to know where they are going. Although the nomadic polar bear enjoys a larger acreage than almost any other animal, its range is still confined by the whereabouts of the ringed seal, its favorite prey and about 85 percent of its food supply.

Distinctively different from its brown, black, and grizzly cousins, the polar bear is built for conservation of heat and ease of travel on ice or in water. With a massive but elongated body, a long neck tapering to a narrow head, low shoulders, and a high rump, it appears awkward but moves over the ice with sure—footed grace and agility. Its pelt consists of a thermal blanket of fine hair and a cover of tough guard hairs. Each hair is a hollow tube that traps air, the best of insulating materials. The hairs are actually transparent but appear white because they reflect all visible wavelengths of light. Underneath the pelt is protectively warm, heat—absorbing black skin. A bulky layer of blubber beneath the skin keeps the bear buoyant and warm in near—freezing water.

For most of their adult lives, polar bears are solitary animals. Nomadic males will turn aside from their course rather than confront each other. The mature he—bear is a tyrant that young bears avoid and with whom females consort for only a few days of mating. They will later shun the male, fearing for the safety of their cubs, which they are quick to defend from any aggressor. In general, polar bear society is one of "armed neutrality," in which conflict is restricted to defending cubs, hauling a meal of seals out of water, and fighting for mating privileges. At that time, competition for a female can become deadly.

The only rival to the polar bear's domination of the Arctic is the walrus, two tons of awesome bulk with a pair of formidable tusks. When an encounter does occur, the bear is hardly a match for the great tusks of the walrus and usually comes out second best. Knowing this, the polar bear will wisely avoid such confrontation. However, if very hungry, it will resort to trickery. In 1984 a scientist observed as a bear sneaked up on a full—grown sleeping walrus and brained it with an enormous chunk of ice. The bear fed well on an abundance of walrus that day.

In its search for food, the polar bear uses equally energy—saving devices. Aided by a most acute sense of smell, it lurks downwind from a ringed seal basking in the sun. It will creep delicately toward the seal, its fur blending with the snow and ice. Bears have been observed to push a chunk of ice in front of themselves to avoid being spotted. The seal can see only a chunk of ice and may even wonder why it appears to move. Researchers have witnessed how a bear will approach a seal with a white paw covering its black nose. In a final rush the bear reaches the seal and, with a single blow of its paw, prepares dinner. A seal in the water is an even easier mark, for the bear need only locate a breathing hole and wait for the seal to come up for air. With one movement, the bear plunges its forepaw into the airhole, smashes the seal's skull, and drags it onto the ice.

At times the polar bear may look upon a nice juicy whale as an endless feast. One reportedly attacked a 40—ton whale. The bear leaped onto the whale's back and submerged with it while trying to bite off a chunk of blubber. When the whale resurfaced, the bear was still in the same position, determined to obtain a mouthful of food. On the third submergence, the bear gave up the whale and settled for the chunk of blubber in its mouth. Although the bear is a loner, groups do gather to share the flesh of beached whales. Several witnesses reported observing nearly 100 bears eating one huge whale. Bears entered the carcass through a hole eaten in the mammoth belly and emerged from the gaping mouth.

The polar bear is virtually defenseless when swimming and can be pushed or "herded" by a small boat in any desired direction. Knowing this, Inuit often drive a swimming bear close to their encampment before killing it. Inuit have always killed bears in order to live rather than to flaunt a useless trophy. The flesh provides food, fat is both food and a source of oil, bones are shaped into various tools and implements, and the hide becomes clothing. Polar bear liver, however, is poisonous because of its high concentration of vitamin A—40 times as much as is found in beef liver. This is a lethal dose, as some early Inuit may have discovered.

Until recently polar bears rarely encountered humans and had no fear of them. Most bears seem now to understand that humans are more dangerous to them than vice versa, and so they tend to avoid people. Contrary to the chronicles of early whalers and explorers, polar bears do not attack humans with hateful fury, but an excessively hungry bear is always a threat. And a wounded bear can be a deadly adversary. An account is on record of an old male bear charging a hunter for over 60 yards, despite the fact that it had already been shot through the heart several times!

In Churchill, Manitoba, polar bears have taken to raiding garbage cans. Although they recycle a lot of garbage, some negative consequences take place. In 1991 an old man went outside to dispose of the garbage and never came back. The son who went to look for him found that the father's tracks had been intercepted by those of a polar bear that evidently preferred fresh meat to garbage. The bear was hunted down and shot. What was left of the victim was recovered and given a proper burial.

Other, less threatening encounters have been equally unnerving. During an expedition to Greenland in 1980, a sailor who went for a walk unarmed encountered a large male bear. It charged immediately. As the terrified man ran, he tore off his jacket so he could run faster. The bear stopped, sniffed the garment, and resumed the chase faster than before. The man continued to remove articles of clothing, and each momentarily slowed down the bear. The man's frantic shouts attracted his shipmates. As they hurried to his aid, the exhausted sailor gave up and remained rooted to a spot. The bear, catching up to him, simply sniffed his hands. He must have smelled good to this bear! When the man's companions showed up, the bear decided this conquest wasn't worth the effort and hurried off. The man, clad lightly in undergarments, passed out.

In 1969 a coastguard vessel in the Canadian Arctic received a visit from an adult polar bear traveling on a drifting ice floe. The crew threw all kinds of food at the bear, who relished the free lunch. But when the food ran out, the bear tried to come aboard much to the crew's alarm. They turned a fire hose on the bear, an ineffective disciplinary action because the bear thoroughly enjoyed the drenching. It raised its paws in the air, apparently luxuriating in the jet of water under its armpits. The coastguard crew finally fired a distress rocket near the interloper, and the bear reluctantly moved away.

The polar bear can be ingenious in captivity. In January 1976 a female polar bear decided to make a bid for freedom at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. The subzero temperature had frozen the waterfall in her enclosure, so she managed, with much effort, to haul her 600—pound body up the resulting ice bridge. Her freedom was short—lived. Just 100 feet beyond her prison she was met by a keeper with a tranquilizer gun!

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning