Some Things You Should Know About Polar Bears

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Devotees of online "cuteness overload" sites are probably familiar with Knut, the polar bear born in 2006 at the Berlin Zoological Garden. Little Knut was rejected by his mother and was subsequently hand-raised by zookeeper Thomas Dörflein, who slept on a mattress next to Knut's crate at night in order to provide 24-hour care. Both Knut and his caretaker became reluctant celebrities and regularly greeted visitors at the zoo at set times each day.

As fluffy and adorable as baby Knut was, he was destined to grow up into a full-fledged adult polar bear, considered by biologists to be the most dangerous species of the bear kingdom. Adult Knut was just recently introduced to a three-year-old female on loan from the Munich Zoo. The humans involved hope that the pair will eventually have amour on their minds, and they're encouraged by Gianna's initial reaction: she smacked Knut on his snoot, a not uncommon practice among female polar bears and potential suitors. Just in case you're unfamiliar with polar bear behavior in general, here are a few quick facts:

Polar bears know no boundaries when it comes to hunting for food. They travel from Alaska to Russia to Canada to Greenland, and even parts of Norway. They're not really land animals, but they travel from place to place across the ice when the ocean freezes. Seal meat is the favorite food of polar bears, and they prefer to stay out at sea on giant ice floes where seals are plentiful. "Still hunting" is a polar bear's preferred method of catching its favorite dinner, a ringed or bearded seal. The bear finds an air hole in the ice, lies next to it, and keeps very still. When a seal pops his head up for a breath of air, the bear grabs it and flips it onto the ice.
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Polar bears possess one of the most sensitive noses in the animal kingdom. Researchers believe that polar bears can smell a seal from up to 20 miles away, or even a seal den that's been buried under three feet of snow. When they stand on their hind legs, they're usually sniffing the air around them, trying to hone in on the closest food source.
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Underneath its fur, a polar bear's skin is just as black as its nose. Scientists used to believe that the black skin of the polar bear helped it to absorb heat, but recent studies have shown that its fur actually absorbs most of the UV rays and transmits very little energy to the flesh. Polar bears actually have two layers of fur, which insulates the creatures so well that they tend to get overheated when running a long distance.
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Their fur is oily and water repellent. When polar bears climb out of the water after a swim, one or two good shakes dries them off almost completely.
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The wild polar bear population has diminished in recent years due to global warming and their overall loss of habitat, so breeding in captivity has been encouraged in order to perpetuate the species. As a result, scientists have learned a great deal about the mating patterns of polar bears. They've noted, for example, that polar bears don't seem to mind "courting" in full view of visitors, but mama bears won't carry a cub to term unless she has her own private, secluded den. Adult female polar bears usually give birth once every three years, and the cubs stay with their mothers until they are about two and a half years old. The mother bear nurses them for up to 30 months, even though the youngsters start sprouting very sharp teeth at only two months of age. The cubs look bald at birth, but they actually have a very fine layer of fur. They are, however, unable to see or hear when they're first born.

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October 6, 2009 - 10:34am
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