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Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Daily pattern

  • Most active during first third of the day
  • Least active in last third
  • Amount of time spent hunting changes, depending on season and availability of seals
    • Time-intensive; generally, less than 2% of hunting attempts are successful
  • Self-grooming occurs after 30 minutes of feeding during summer

Yearly pattern

  • Late February-April: mother and cubs leave den
    • Usually remain at den site for 7 to 10 days so cubs can adjust to cold conditions
      • Den may be 20 degrees warmer
  • March-April: adult males begin to search for mates
  • April-May: mating occurs over ~2-week period
    • Induces egg ovulation in females
    • Implantation of embryo delayed until autumn
  • April-August: bears most active
    • Hunt Ringed Seals pups, which are often born in April
  • August-September: bears of both sexes dig sleeping pits and temporary dens and remain somewhat sedentary in Canadian Arctic (Messier et al 1994).
  • Late October-early November: denning by females begins
  • November-January: females give birth and nurse young in den

Denning Behavior

Adult females remain in a den for half the year or longer

(Atkinson & Ramsay 1995) (Folk et al 1976) (Kurt 1990)

  • In these months, do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate
  • Body wastes recycled biochemically (without kidneys) to prevent dehydration
  • As much as 30% of body mass lost; 43% of body weight
  • Massive weight gain before denning protects against starvation during extended fasting during pregnancy and denning
  • Stored fat broken down to supply 90% of energy requirements

All polar bears use dens

(Harrington 1968) (Van de Velde et al 2003)

  • Maternity dens: for long term use over winter (Watts and Hansen 1987) (Messier et al 1994)
    • For pregnancy, giving birth, and first months of cubs' life
    • Average duration of use: 6 months
    • Adult females excavate dens in snow throughout their ranges
    • May show site fidelity to quality den sites from year-to-year (e.g., Ramsay Stirling 1990; Zeyl et al. 2010)
      • Zeyl et al. (2010) found that daughters tend to den in similar locations as their mothers
      • Females sometimes change locations (move locally or immigrate to new areas) to take advantage of better den sites
  • Shelter-dens: for short term use autumn-spring by males and females (Schweinsburg 1979; Jonkel et al. 1992; Derocher 2010)
    • For during times of no Ringed Seals, bad weather (including too hot), too many insects or other bears
      • May use from 0.5 - 4 months, according to data from Greenland in 1920s to the 1960s (Ferguson 2000)
    • Made of snow or earth or natural shelters like caves or even suitable overhanging blocks of ice

Changes in physiology due to denning activity

(Nelson et al. 1980)

  • Heart rate
    • Sleeping heart rate can fall as low as 8-10 beats/minute (Folk et al. 1980)
      • 40-50 beats/minute when active in summer
  • Bone health
    • Cellular mechanisms prevent significant bone loss during prolonged denning period (Lennox and Goodship 2008; McGee-Lawrence et al 2008)
  • Body temperature
    • Only slightly lower than typical during denning period (Harrington 1968; Folk et al 1980)
    • May be fine-tuned on a cellular level by varying levels of nitric oxide (Welch et al. 2014)
      • Influences whether energy from food is used to power cellular functions or generate heat (thermogenesis)
  • Metabolism
    • Switch between feeding and fasting metabolism at any time of year, depending on food supplies (Derocher et al 1990; Nelson et al 1984)
      • At start of denning period, begin fasting 7-10 days after prey no longer available

Social Behavior


  • Solitary, except for females with cubs
  • Cubs learn by following and imitating mother during the 2.5 year period they are with her
  • Sexes come together only briefly for up to two weeks during mating season, March-June
    • May remain together for up to two weeks
  • Several bears may scavenge at the same whale carcass

Dominance interactions

  • Dominance among males loosely based on size
  • Risk of injury in male-male fights is high (Derocher et al 2005)
  • Mothers with cubs may be out-competed by other bears for high quality foraging habitat (e.g., Pilford et al. 2014)
    • In part, females may be avoiding males that might harm their cubs

Agonistic Behavior and Defense


  • Males compete intensely for breeding partners
    • Most females reproduce only once every 3 years; only a third of the females are available during any breeding season
  • Male bears may kill cubs (a behavior also observed in other bear species)
    • Females defend cubs by challenging or attacking the much-larger male
    • Older cubs can sometimes outrun an adult male
  • In late fall, when male bears fast and wait for ice to freeze, display little aggression but engage in mock ritualized battles

Movements and Dispersal

Home ranges and habitat use

  • Larger home ranges than terrestrial carnivores
  • Range size varies, depending on reliability of prey, and use of drifting sea ice vs. stationary ice or land-based habitats during summer (e.g., Ferguson et al. 1999; Auger-Méthé et al. 2016; Pagano et al. 2021)
    • Also body size and reproductive status (e.g., solitary females and mothers with cubs tend to have smaller home ranges)
  • Movements and range size vary most when ice is freezing and breaking up (e.g., Cherry et al. 2013; McCall et al. 2015)
  • Often large, overlapping home ranges among individuals
    • Except when activity centered on concentrated resources (e.g., access to carcasses discarded by native subsistence hunters)
    • Habitat use between males and females similar (e.g., Laidre et al. 2014)
  • Some polar bears (e.g., in the Beaufort Sea) have expanded their ranges, likely due to loss of sea ice habitat (Auger-Méthé et al. 2016; Durner et al. 2019; Pagano et al. 2021)
    • Habitat use of some individuals shifted farther north and northeast
      • More time spent in open water


  • Large movements when seasonally move onto ice to hunt (e.g., Parks et al. 2006)
  • May make extensive northern and southern migrations


Heat retention and loss

  • Fat and fur both insulate
  • Body: low surface area-to-volume ratio favors heat retention
  • Overheating
    • Overheat easily when running
      • Cannot travel any great distance at speeds more than a walk
    • Tendency to overheat enhanced by thick layer of fat
  • Susceptibility to cold
    • Occurs in thin adults and young cubs up to 6 months old with little body fat
  • Body temperature
    • As long as bear isn't exposed to wind, body temperature and metabolic rate remain normal at -37ºC (-35°F)
    • Body temperature drops to 31-35ºC (88-95ºF) when in winter dens, only slightly below normal body temperature (Harrington 1968)
  • Metabolism
    • Polar Bear have high metabolism, especially during active months
      • Varies with climate and season, as in all bears



(Wemmer et al 1976; Cushing et al 1988)

  • Polar bear sounds and vocalization descriptions, from Polar Bears International
  • Bear vocalizations (and hearing) still being studied
    • Knowledge of the bears' hearing range important for establishing effects of noise disturbance on these bears (Owen 2007; Owen et al. 2021)
  • Females and cubs use chuffing call with each other
    • 1-32 low-intensity sound pulses emitted in rapid succession
    • Most frequent in cub's early months
  • Chuffing call infrequent between adults
    • May signal stress or agitation
  • Bears snort /chuff, growl, and chomp teeth when showing aggression
  • Polar Bears raised in managed care "groaned and chuffed" when presented with underwater call of Ringed Seals, their preferred prey (Cushing et al. 1988)

Olfactory communication

  • Highly developed sense of smell
    • Detect breathing holes of Ringed Seal from at least 1 kilometer (0.6 mi) away
  • Use of pheromone scents not documented but probably present when males seek/track females on ice
    • Adult male may walk 10 km in a straight line in search of a breeding female

Visual communication

  • Includes body language, including head movements, charging, and circling (e.g., near a kill)
  • Limited number of visual facial signals (Kurt 1990)
    • Facial muscles poorly developed.
    • Unlike highly social cats and wolves, solitary lifestyle doesn't require elaborate mechanisms for group coexistence.


Walking and resting

  • Adapted primarily for walking
    • Swimming incurs a higher metabolic cost (Durner et al. 2011; Griffen 2018)
      • Estimated to require 5 times more energy than walking
  • Move with ease and agility over rough terrain and jumbled ice floes
  • Conserve energy when moving at slow speeds (e.g., Pagano et al. 2018a)
    • Prefer lying down and still-hunting to chasing prey due to energy costs of running
  • Most plantigrade (soles flat to the ground) of all the Carnivora
    • Dogs and cats are digitigrade (stand on toes with most of sole elevated)
      • Digitigrade animals tend to be faster than plantigrade animals, partly because of a longer stride
  • Top speed recorded: 11 m per sec (25 mph)
    • Speed sacrificed in favor of tremendous strength/mobility of limb movement

Swimming and diving

  • Excellent swimmers, like other carnivores
  • Capable divers (Lønø 1970; Lone et al. 2018a)
    • By one report, dives of up to 5m (15 ft) most common
    • Can dive up to 14 m (46 ft)
  • Swim using oar-like forepaws
    • Forelimbs and large forepaws propel animal forward with a stroke like a dog swimming
    • Hind limbs trail behind serving as a rudder
    • Head and shoulders held above water
  • Swimming rate about 6.5 km/hr
  • Able to swim up to 15 miles easily
    • Adapted for swimming nearshore
  • Can swim for multiple days, if needed (Durner et al. 2011; Pagano et al. 2012)
  • Swimming more common during summer and fall/autumn, when smaller ice pack (Lone et al. 2018a)
  • Females with cubs less likely to swim (Pilford et al. 2017; Lone et al. 2018a)
    • Young cubs at risk of hypothermia and drowning
  • As ice packs melt, bears in some areas swim farther across open water
    • Durner et al. (2011) report a female polar bear swimming 687 km (427 mi) over 9 days (mild sea/weather conditions)
      • Lost cub and 22% of her body mass (insulation against cold)
    • DeMaster and Stirling (1981): report of a 40-mile swim across open water
  • Some reports of longer swims in recent years (e.g., Pagano et al. 2012)
    • Longer swims (hundreds of kilometers), especially in open seas with waves can be dangerous
      • Can result in drowning (Monnett and Gleason 2006)

Interspecies Interactions

(Stirling 1977; DeMaster & Stirling 1981; Stirling 1993; Amstrup 2003; Rosing 2006; Regehr et al 2007)

  • Ringed seals
    • Each year kill about 44% of newborn Ringed Seal pups
    • Population size largely determined by numbers and availability of Ringed Seals
    • Ringed Seals, the Polar Bear's primary prey, have evolved into very cautious, vigilant animals; by contrast Weddel Seals living without ground predators in the Antarctic are comparatively unafraid (Stirling 1977, Amstrup 2003)
  • Arctic foxes, ravens, gulls scavenge remains of seals killed by Polar Bears (Rosing 2006)
  • Also see Diet & Feeding

Excellent Swimmers

polar bear under water

A polar bear dives underwater at the San Diego Zoo.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Atkinson & Ramsay (1995)
Cushing et al (1988)
DeMaster & Stirling (1981)
Derocher (2010)
Durner et al. (2011)
Ferguson et al (2000)
Folk et al (1976)
Folk et al (1980)
Ginsburg (1994)
Gittleman (1989)
Herrington (1963, 1968)
Jonkel et al (1972)
Kurt (1990)
McGee-Lawrence et al (2008)
Megan (2009)
Messier et al (1994)
Nowak (1981)
Owen (2009)
Schweinsburg (1979)
Stirling (1993, 1998)
Van de Velde et al (2003)
Watts and Hansen (1987)
Welch et al. (2014)
Wemmer (1976)

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