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Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?

By Alexander Oboimov, Olga Gertcyk
24 November 2016

This and 10 other silly questions answered by the Arctic explorer Alexander Oboimov.

Alexander Bazykin treats a polar bear cub to a caramel candy. Picture: Alexander Oboimov

Alexander Oboimov, member of the Russian Geographic Society, meteorologist, Arctic lover and traveler. 

Young polar explorers often ask me these questions on their first trip to Arctic. Some of them might seem funny and insignificant, but as they kept coming I thought why not to answer ten most often asked. 

Do polar bears like sweets and honey? Do they eat snow? 

This is in fact not a silly question. Polar bears are predators, but also they are omnivorous which means that they can eat everything, including boots left outside a house by a forgetful polar explorer, or something equally inedible. 

They love condensed milk, I’ve watched them savouring it many times. Same goes for candies, see the picture of my colleague Sasha Bazykin who made friends with a polar bear cub and treated it with caramel candies. Honey - now, given a shortage of beehives in the Arctic, their only hope to get honey is at our storehouses. If, or rather when they manage to sneak inside, they love to get hold of honey. 

Polar bears are not very picky in terms of food, but if they have a choice between a seal and nearly everything else, they'll choose a seal. However, due to intensive climate changes, the Arctic menu shrank a lot. 

Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?
Polar bear cubs stay with their mothers up to three years. Pictures: Alexander Oboimov


How big are polar bears? How long do they live?

The polar bear is one of the largest predator mammals, the only bigger ground predator is the sea elephant. Polar bears can grow up to three meters long. Male bears on average weigh 400-450 kg; they are 200 to 250 cm long and 130 to 150 cm shoulder height. 

Females are significantly smaller, weighing between 200 and 300 kg. 

The smallest polar bears live on Spitsbergen island, the largest - in the Bering sea. 

In the wild polar bears live up to 30 years maximum. Record longevity in captivity for a polar bear was 45 years. 

Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?
Polar bears swim at a speed of 10 kmph. The fastest Olympic swimmers go at 7 kmph. Pictures: Alexander Oboimov


What do we know about polar bear breeding?

Polar bears can cross-breed with brown bears and produce fertile hybrids called polar grizzly. Polar bears breed at the end of spring when temperature in the Arctic starts to increase. Pregnancy lasts about 8 months. During this time mother bears eat a lot to save energy and survive a winter with cubs.

At the beginning of a winter a female bear digs a den inside big snowdrifts or atop an ice floe. 

In the middle of winter in some of the planet's coldest places female polar bears give birth to their cubs. Usually female bears have two cubs at a time, sometimes it can be just one, rarely three cubs. 

When cubs are born, they are totally dependant on mother bear. They stay in the den till the beginning of spring, then leave it and start exploring the world.

In the first year their diet is mixed, cubs eat milk and seal meat that their mother brings. Once they get bigger, mother bear teaches them to hunt.

Cubs stay with their mother for nearly three years, then the family breaks and a mother leaves them to start breeding again. Giving birth and raising cubs requires a lot of effort from the mother, so in years when there isn't enough food, polar bears rarely breed. 

Why do polar bears roll in snow?

I've heard lots of tales and stories about polar bears, but one thing is definitely true - they are very neat.

These animals spend 15-20 minutes a day on hygiene and carefully get rid of dirt and food crumbles stuck in their fur.

They do roll in the snow and while it looks like they play, this is a very practical habit that helps them clean fur. It is very important for them because dirty fur looses its [thermal] insulation properties.

Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?

There is a plan hold polar bear census in 2018. Pictures: Alexander Oboimov

Are they good at swimming?

Polar bears have truly amazing swimming skills, a lot more impressive than say swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.

Their massive paws are perfect for cutting through the ocean waves as fast as 10 kmph. Compare it to pitiful Olympic records - 7 kmph at the very best. So it doesn’t matter how many golden medals you've got, you can still become polar bear's breakfast. 

Do polar bears attack humans?

Experienced polar explorers know that if the animal is full, it will not show a sign of hostility to a human in case of an accidental meeting.

A curious bear will just observe and sniff a mysterious two-legged creature. Such an encounter is not dangerous for an armed traveler, but if you're unarmed or armed with a stick, you'll feel different. 

A few years ago, a very hungry polar bear was chasing a research team that had just landed at Novaya Zemlya archipelago.

It's hard to say what would have happened if not for a brilliant mind of one students. He started taking off and dropping bits of his clothing, making the bear to pause, sniff and try fur hat, mittens and jacket. It gave the whole team precious seconds to get ahead of the bear and jump on a boat.

Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?
The biggest polar bears live in the Bering Sea. Pictures: Alexander Oboimov


Can people domesticate a polar bear? 

Some animals can't be trained, bloodthirsty and sullen jaguar is one of them. Until now all the attempts to train them have been in vain. Polar bear is the second in line. Polar bears can’t be domesticated. A tough approach will not work on them as they will never obey because of fear. 

A polar bear is more likely to attack a human than submit. The only possible way to work with polar bears is when people train them since early childhood. We have only one family in Russia that so far manages to train polar bears - the Denisenko family from Irkutsk in Siberia. 

Do polar bears eat their own babies?

Ice is melting more and more, gradually depriving polar bears of their natural habitat and abundant hunting lands.

Catching seals becomes more and more complicated, so polar bears are looking for other sources of food. A couple of eggs found in a bird nest can't satisfy the giants, and in some cases they turned to cannibalism.

Last year a polar bear went to Malye Karmakuly polar station and attacked two little orphan cubs who found shelter at the polar station.

One of the cubs died, the other one was injured. We managed to save him and send him to a safari-park in Gelendzhik (a city in the south of Russia). I was co-ordinating the cub’s travels across Russia. 

How many of them are left in the wild? 

The polar bear is in Russia's Red Book of endangered animals, because their numbers are getting lower every year.

The total number of polar bears is estimated at 25,000 animals, around 7,000 of them live in Russia.

There is a plan to hold a polar bear census in Russia in 2018, and to take all necessary measures to protect their population.

Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?


Might getting undressed in front of a hungry polar bear save your life?
A polar bear can't be domesticated. Pictures: Alexander Oboimov


Do polar bears have a ‘capital’ location? Where is it? 

Due to a strange coincidence, the city of Churchill in Canada's Manitoba province is the world capital of polar bears. Every spring and summer ice bay by the town thaws, and leaves polar bears without their primary hunting area. Dozens and sometimes hundreds of hungry bears who have no opportunity to hunt for seals get dangerously close to the city. 

These bears are not picky at all - they can eat anything, like rubbish for starters and dogs for dessert. Despite the danger, locals managed to adapt to the all-year polar bear invasion. For example, people leave their houses unlocked in case someone is chased by a polar bear and needs a shelter. 

People use special doormats with sharp nails sticking out to prevent bears from getting inside. 

During Halloween children are accompanied by armed adults. There is a ban for a Halloween ghost costume as it can be easily confused with a polar bear. 

There is even a special hotline with an emergency squad on standby. 

They even have a jail for polar bears! If a bear keeps coming back to the city, they put it to sleep and lock it inside a former aircraft hangar.

The jail is arranged so that it causes maximum discomfort to animals with no food and only to stay hydrated, and extremely limited space.

The idea is to make their ‘stay’ in Churchill as unpleasant as possible so that they never want to come back. It might sound cruel, but it's the best alternative to killing bears. When the bay is covered by ice again, the bears are set free. 

Comments (1)

It is a connoisseur who brings us these interesting knowledges about this beautiful animal.Very interesting.Thanks
Jocelyne, FRANCE
26/11/2016 22:15
15
1
1

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