Polar bears are a young species. Evolving from their common ancestor with common brown bears less than 480,000 years ago (according to Aarhus University), their fur changed color at some point to white to blend with their icy surroundings. According to researchers, a group of brown bears may have migrated north during a warmer period and got trapped when the cold set in. Left to quickly adapt or die, thus the first polar bears evolved. Polar bears have white fur for camouflage, shorter claws so they can comfortably walk on ice and better night vision (to cope with the long polar nights in winter). In comparison to their brown bear relatives, they sustain on diets that take calories mostly from meat and blubber (and not carbohydrates such as grass and vegetables).
Polar bears never got the chance to migrate south during their rather recent evolution. Animal migration usually relied on land routes for them to spread to other regions. The North and South Poles were never connected by land bridges, so bears were not able to move that far south. While most bears are found in the Northern Hemisphere, a few migrated to southern regions like the Andean bear (found in South America).
Antarctica is much colder than the Arctic. Would polar bears adapt to these lower temperatures if they were to be relocated to the White Continent? No polar bear has ever made the trip down south, so there is no clear data on this. Polar bears are known to withstand freezing temperatures in the Arctic as low as minus 46°C (minus 50°F), but record lows in Antarctica were measured at minus 89°C (minus 129°F). While adult polar bears may adapt to these extremes, it is questionable how this would affect their more vulnerable offspring.
As of 2021, according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) around 26,000 polar bears roam their natural habitats in the coastal areas of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Russia and Norway (Svalbard). In these Arctic regions, 19 polar bear populations are known to live in extremely remote areas, which makes it difficult to study and monitor their behavior and movements. Considered a marine mammal, these amazing giants spend most of their lives on the Arctic Ocean and its sea ice cover, hunting for prey. If you want to learn more about these incredible creatures and spot them in their natural habitat, join one of our expedition cruises to Greenland or Svalbard. Our onboard specialists will help you understand their lifestyle and behavior, the need for conservation and answer any questions you’ve always wanted to ask about polar bears.
With climate change, sea ice receding rapidly in the Arctic and staying rather stable in the Antarctic, why not relocate endangered polar bears down south? Polar Bears International (a non-profit conversation organization) and many other scientists emphasize that this isn’t a good idea or realistic way to save polar bears.
While polar bears could theoretically thrive on the White Continent and gorge on the ample delicacies of Antarctic wildlife, it would be bad news for penguins, seals and lots of sea bird species! Polar bears would not only hunt penguins, but also ravage their nests for eggs. With an abundance of fur, elephant, Weddell, and crabeater seals available, polar bears would thrive and multiply rapidly. In short, Mr. Polar Bear’s arrival would disturb the natural biodiversity of Antarctica and harm many of the native species, causing a disruption of entire ecosystems as far as Australia, Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands!
To understand the diversity and beauty of the Arctic and Antarctic, join our polar cruises and see the different wildlife in the southern and northern habitats. As part of an expedition cruise, you will not only be able to immerse yourself into the amazing polar regions, but also learn about their preservation and wildlife conservation.
Can a polar bear live in Antarctica?
Hypothetically they could withstand the cold temperatures and would find an ample variety of food available in this new environment, with barely any natural predators. But polar bears in Antarctica would be disastrous for the biodiversity of the Antarctic region. Penguins, seals and many rare seabirds would be on a polar bear’s meal plan, without any natural predator to control the number of polar bears. There is also no natural land bridge for polar bears to migrate south, so the only way to introduce a polar bear to Antarctica would be by humans, relocating them artificially.
Where is the best place to see polar bears?
The best spots to visit polar bears are coastal areas in the Arctic. Polar bears live in the High Arctic and spend most of their lives at and near the sea, hunting seals on ice floes, swimming and diving in the water. As they are usually found in very remote areas, the best way to see them is by boarding an expedition cruise to Greenland, Svalbard or the North Pole. You will be able to spot them from a safe distance from the spacious deck of your small expedition ship.
What time of year is best to see polar bears?
Polar bears do not hibernate, so technically you can see them year-round. Winter is prime time for them to hunt, when they stalk the sea ice to wait for seals to appear in a breathing hole. A good time for observing them is the Arctic summer, when sea ice recedes enough for expedition ships to pass through the Arctic Ocean. Board our Polar bear tour in Svalbard to get prime opportunities to see these majestic bears.