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The Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) is the largest and most formidable land predator on the planet, though to categorise it as a land animal does scant justice to how well adapted it is to the marine environment. It is not uncommon for adult males to weight in excess of 1,500 pounds (700 kilos), though the average is around 1,000 pounds ( 450 kilos), while females are about half that size. The polar bear's great weight is due in no small part to the 4 inch (10cm) thick layer of fat it stores to keep warm. It is well adapted to life on the Arctic ice and its famous white coat is in fact made up of hollow, translucent hairs which act as excellent insulators, trapping radiating body heat from the black skin beneath. Light reflected from the coat gives the illusion of white colouration. In fact that only parts of a polar bear that radiate heat are the eyes and nose, and when sleeping it covers these with its fur covered paws.

It is widely believed that polar bears evolved from a small enclave of grizzly bears isolated by glaciers near Siberia in the Pleistocene period, about 200,000 years ago, and their status as a separate species is hotly contested in some scientific circles. The physical differences between these closely related species are however dramatic, and apart from the obvious differences in size and colouration, the Polar Bear has a more elongated head and body, and shorter claws and much larger feet adapted to walking on ice and swimming long distances. They are strong swimmers able to achieve speeds of up to 6mph, and have been known to cross large expanses of water in excess of 100 miles.

Unlike his omnivorous brown cousin, Nanuuq, as the great white bear is known to the Inuit of Arctic Canada, is an out and out carnivore with a sense of smell so acute that it can detect a seal several miles away. It is estimated that a polar bear must consume an entire seal each week to maintain its fat reserves, and its preferred prey is the Ringed Seal, though in lean times it will tackle just about anything it encounters. It is an incredibly powerful animal, capable of hunting prey as a large as a Beluga Whale or the tusked Walrus, probably the only animal it really fears. Like most bears it is very calorie conscience and eats only skin and blubber, leaving the leaner red meat for the Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) which depends on polar bear kills during the winter.

Canada has by far the largest polar bear population in the world, estimated at 15,000. Russia and Norway have 5,000 each, and Alaska 2,000. Breeding usually takes place in April, but as with other bears females are able to delay implantation of fertilized eggs until September or October, and then only if she has accumulated sufficient fat reserves to sustain her and her cubs. She then gives birth in a winter den in December, usually to 1 or 2 cubs. They stay with her for 30 months, nursing for the first 18-24, longer than any other bear cubs. For this reason females tend to give birth only every third year. Polar bears reach maturity at between 3 & 5 years of age and live on average for 25 years in the wild, with some individuals reaching 35.

Let Bear Trails take you on an adventure of a lifetime to observe this majestic animal in its natural habitat. We offer tours to Churchill, Manitoba in October and November when large numbers of polar bears congregate around Cape Churchill waiting for the first sea ice to form so that they can head offshore to hunt seals through the winter. It is also possible to see polar bears in the Churchill area in July and August, though sightings are less frequent and reliable. Our other polar bear destination in Nunavut, 50 miles inside the Arctic circle, offers a much longer season with boat based viewing from July to November, with September and October producing the best sightings, and for the more adventurous, skidoo (snowmobile) excursions in the winter with our expert Inuit guides.

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