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Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature


  • See side bar, right (ITIS: The Integrated Taxonomic Information System, Feb 2010)
  • No subspecies

Common Names

  • Polar Bear - Ursus maritimus from the Latin for "bear of the sea" (maritime bear)
  • Ah tik tok - Alaskan Eskimo name meaning "those that go down to the sea"
  • Many common names throughout Arctic: nanook, ice bear, sea bear.


Evolutionary History

(Yu et al 2007) (Yu et al 2004) (Schliebe et al 2006)

  • Molecular data indicate that the procyonid (raccoons, koatis, ringtails, kinkajous and others) and bear families diverged from each other about 30 million years ago (Oligocene).
  • Lineages leading to the 6 distinct living bear species in Ursus radiated from a common ancestor 6.3 million years ago (Pliocene).
  • Brown Bears (includes Grizzly Bears) and Polar Bears diverged from the Black and Sun Bears in the last 6.1 million years ago (Pliocene).
    • Range overlap of Polar and Grizzly Bears only in N. Canada, Chukotka, Russia and N. Alaska.
    • A few Polar-Bear, Grizzly hybrids have been seen in western Canadian Arctic; a second generation hybrid whose mother was already a polar-grizzly hybrid confirmed in 2010
  • Polar Bears diverged from one group of brown bears about 150,000 years ago according to molecular evidence (Lindquist et al 2010)
    • 1.32 million years ago (Pleistocene) according to complete mitochonrial DNA evidence (Yu et al 2007)
  • Few Polar Bear fossils have been found, because they live on the ice and their remains fall to the bottom of the ocean or are scavenged.
    • In 2004 a well-preserved 110,000-130,000-year-old jawbone and canine tooth were discovered in the Svalbard archipelago of Norway providing DNA (Lindqvist et al 2010)
  • Early Polar Bear fossils known from 100,000 year-old Pleistocene sediments in Kew Botanical Gardens in London (Kurtén 1995)
  • Polar Bears and Grizzly Bears are the closest relatives (sister clade to) the extinct Cave Bear (U. speleaus). (Agnarsson et al 2010)

Cultural History

Documentary appearances

  • Polar Bear Alert - 2008, National Geographic
    • This DVD exclusive takes viewers on a journey to a small Canadian village, where residents have learned to live with a unique wildlife problem. Polar bears migrate through this small, isolated village. Scientists are presented with a unique opportunity to observe the bears.
  • Bears of the Last Frontier: Part 3, Arctic Wanderers - 2011, PBS
    • The polar bear learns how to survive in an everchanging environment in this Nature series from season 29.
  • Frozen Planet - 2012, BBC
    • This 7 part DVD has David Attenborough narrating the wilderness of the Arctic and Antarctic.
  • Polar Bear: A Summer Odyssey - 2012, CBC's Science and Natural History Documentary Unit.
    • Nominated for and Emmy and shot over twelve months, this documentary tells the story of a young polar bear's journey as he struggles to survive the longest Arctic summer on record.
  • The Polar Bear Family and Me - 2013, BBC
    • Gordon Buchanan follows a polar bear family from Spring, Summer, and Autumn in Svalbard.


  • Lords of the Arctic: A Journey Among the Polar Bears - Davids, 1982
  • Polar Bear - Matthews & Guravich, 1993
  • Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior - Derocher & Lynch, 2012

Children's Books

  • Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? - Martin Jr. & Carle, 1997
  • Polar Bears - Newman, 2010


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora (15 families)

Family: Ursidae (bears)

Genus: Ursus (bears)

Species: Ursus maritimus (polar bear)

Describer (Date): Phipps (1774:p.185) A Voyage Towards North Pole, London: J. Nourse for Ursus maritimus

Page Citations

Agnarsson et al (2010)
Ingolfsson & Wiig (2008)
Krause et al (2008)
Yu et al (2007)
Lindquist et al (2010)
O'Brien (2003)
Schliebe et al (2006)
Wozencraft (2005)
Yu et al (2004)
Yu et al (2007)
ITIS (2010)

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