/ ©: Marie-Chantal MARCHAND / WWF-Canada

Polar Bear

Icons of the Arctic

The largest bear in the world and the Arctic’s top wildlife predator, polar bears are a powerful symbol of the strength and endurance of the Arctic. But this mighty species is at risk as sea ice – its primary habitat and the foundation of the carefully balanced Arctic ecosystem – is melting beneath their paws.

Its Latin name, Ursus maritimus, means 'sea bear', an apt name for this amazing species which spends much of its life in, around, or on the ocean - predominantly on the sea ice.
 

Polar Bear Basics


Scientific Name: Ursus maritimus
Inuktitut Name: Nanuk or nanuq
Weight: 352-680 kg
Length: 2-3 m
Population: 20,000-25,000 polar bears worldwide
Status: Vulnerable

Download the Polar Bear Factsheet (PDF)
© www.JSGrove.com / WWF © www.JSGrove.com / WWF © Steve Morello / WWF © Steve Morello / WWF © Steve Morello / WWF © Steve Morello / WWF © Steve Morello / WWF © Svein B. Oppegaard / WWF © François Pierrel / WWF © Gordon COURT / WWF-Canada

Polar Bear Subpopulations

Where the bears are

At least two thirds of the world’s polar bears live in Canadian territory, giving Canadians a special relationship with and responsibility for these charismatic icons.

In Canada and across the Arctic, WWF supports polar bear studies that determine the number of bears in the 19 sub-populations, the health of bears, and state of sea ice habitat. This research sometimes includes attaching satellite tracking devices to the bears, to help us understand their movements and habitat requirements.  Take a look at the map below to learn more about the polar bears we are currently tracking!


 

Why is the polar bear important?

As an apex predator at the top of the food web, polar bears can signal that there are problems in the Arctic marine ecosystem.  They are likely to be among the most significantly affected species as the Arctic warms and sea ice melts.
 
 / ©: naturepl.com / Steven Kazlowski / WWF-Canon
Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) sow and two cubs walking on ice and snow in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
© naturepl.com / Steven Kazlowski / WWF-Canon

Threats

Climate change:
Polar bears evolved to live on sea ice, which is melting at a troubling rate. Less time on sea ice means more months without access to ringed seals, their primary food, is putting the species at risk.

Read about all Arctic threats.

What WWF is doing

From supporting research to tracking polar bears, we are learning all we can about these Arctic icons, so we can create more effective conservation plans for the polar bear and its habitat.

Learn more about WWF’s work in the Arctic.

On the ground with Nanuq

Environmental groups often use polar bears (nanuq in Inukitut) as the face of climate change for a global audience. But for northern peoples, like Frank Pokiak, polar bears are a part of everyday life. Learn more as, Frank, Chair of the Inuvialuit Game Council, talks about the importance of polar bears to local communities and the importance of local knowledge to the polar bear’s future.

Read More

Did you know?

Typically, an adult male polar bear is an astonishing 2 to 3 metres long and weighs between 352 and 680 kilograms. He needs to eat on average 45 ringed seals every year to survive.

Life on the sea ice

The polar bear’s future is inextricably linked to its sea ice habitat. As climate change continues to reduce the summer extent and winter thickness of sea ice this presents a real long term threat to the species – less ice means fewer bears.

Sea ice is the foundation of Arctic marine life, the ecosystem on which bears rely for every aspect of their lives. The ice is much more than just a platform to move and hunt – it is where they mate and raise their cubs. Sea ice is also essential habitat for their primary food, ringed seals, as seals pup and rest on the ice.
 
 / ©: Steve Morello / WWF-Canon
Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), standing on the edge of the ice and looking up, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway.
© Steve Morello / WWF-Canon
Most polar bears spend their entire lives on the sea ice, and they have evolved to thrive there. Their thick under-fur, guard hairs, and ability to store significant fat keep them warm and powered up over the cold, dark winter months. Their massive paws spread their weight evenly to keep them from falling through snow and thin ice. They have the patience to wait hours for a seal to emerge at a breathing hole and the strength to punch through two feet of compacted snow.
 

Where the polar bears range

Polar bears live in Canada, the U.S., Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Scientists from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group divide them into 19 sub-populations for monitoring and management purposes.

Polar bear subpopulations

Pizzlies or Grolar Bears?

As polar bears spend more time on land and grizzlies head further north as the climate warms, these two bear species are having some ‘close encounters’, some of which result in new hybrid bears – half grizzly, half polar bear! These hybrids have been nicknamed pizzlies or grolar bears. Little is known about them currently, but northerners and scientists are curious to see what will happen in future.

Life off the sea ice

Some of the best studied polar bear sub-populations are spending more time on land. As sea ice decreases at a rate of about 4.6% a decade, polar bears at the southern edges of their range – like those in southern Nunavut, Manitoba and Ontario (yes, Ontario!) – are no longer coming off the ice for a month or two in the summer, they’re spending five to six months on land, with very few seals to eat.
 
 / ©: Howard Buffett / WWF-US
Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) mother and cub sitting amongst the tall grass beside a river. Polar bears are threatened by climate change. Churchill, Canada
© Howard Buffett / WWF-US
Without sea ice and seals, polar bears are left to search for other food sources. This can lead them into communities, where garbage dumps, sled dog yards and human food storage offer easy pickings. Bears in communities often create conflict between bears and people – bears threaten the safety of people and their property. This can result in the death of a bear to protect human lives. Communities, government and WWF are working together to reduce these ‘defense kills’.

Learn more about WWF’s work to keep polar bears and people safe.

Adapting to a new and changing Arctic

The Arctic is changing at an unprecedented rate, and these changes are beginning to affect polar bear populations, and are expected to have an even greater impact as the Arctic continues to warm. Many have asked if the bears can adapt, and it’s a question that scientists are exploring.

Current knowledge shows that polar bears have some capacity to adjust to the warming Arctic, but the loss of sea ice habitat may be happening too rapidly to allow for adaptation and there are no substitutes on land for the fat rich seals on which the bears depend. More northern polar bear populations may have an advantage, as the rate of sea habitat loss is lower - at least for now.

Learn more about WWF’s efforts to determine where the sea ice will be most resilient, the Last Ice Area, and what this will mean for polar bears.

To better understand the impact of oil spills on Canada's Beaufort Sea, an important habitat for polar bears, WWF has completed an oil spill trajectory modeling project. Explore the risks of oil spills for communities, wildlife and ecosystems in the Beaufort Sea at arcticspills.wwf.ca.

 / ©: Jacquie Labatt / WWF-Canada
A female polar bear (Ursus maritimus) and her cub sniff the air and the snow near a bed of kelp, waiting for the winter ice to form in November, near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.
© Jacquie Labatt / WWF-Canada
The level and pace of change is new to the Arctic, and experts are still working to understand what it will mean for the future of the region and all those who call it home. What is certain is that polar bears will face a difficult future without sea ice, which has been the foundation of their lives for hundreds of thousands of years.