Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are an iconic creature that most of us have experienced as cuddly children’s toys or as friendly family groups interacting with penguins in Coca-Cola commercials.
Much of what we commonly see portrayed about polar bears is quite distant from reality. When viewing TV ads, I always want to point out that polar bears and penguins live worlds apart, penguins in the Antarctic and polar bears only in the Arctic. They only meet in fairy tales. I am also bothered by the anthropogenic portrayal of large family units of polar bears because in the real world they are mostly solitary predators who actively avoid contact with their relatives.
Polar bears are found throughout the northern hemisphere Arctic. There are populations in Norway, Russia, Canada, Alaska and Greenland. Most of their lives are spent as ice-pack hunters, looking for seals that have created breathing holes through the ice, or those basking on the ice. When the sea ice melts in the summer, the bears hang out along shore areas. Typically they fast during this onshore time, although they are happy to take carrion or feed on whale carcasses from Native subsistence hunts. They head back out on the pack ice to hunt seals again, as soon as the sea ice starts to reform.
In Alaska villages, like Kaktovik, polar bears are spending more and more time on land due to the earlier and more extensive summer sea ice melting. And the sea ice is reforming later in the fall than it used to, so bears are onshore longer these days. In these situations, they are not usually feeding, so social interactions are less intense.