25 Cool Facts About Polar Bears

iStock
iStock

From starring in Coca-Cola ads to becoming the poster child for climate change, the polar bear is quite the high-profile species. Ursus maritimus is a fascinating animal that roams across the Arctic Circle through Norway, Russia, Canada, Greenland, and Alaska, and there's more to them than the adorable faces you see in children's books and advertisements. In honor of International Polar Bear Day, which takes place on February 27, here are 25 things you should know about the fascinating animal.

1. They're the largest carnivores on land.

A polar bear walks across the snow at sunset.
iStock

Polar bears can weigh more than 1300 pounds and span more than 8 feet, 6 inches from nose to tail, making them the largest carnivores to currently walk the Earth. (Though other bears can grow larger, like Alaska's 10-foot-long Kodiak bear, they're omnivorous, while polar bears prefer an all-meat diet.) The males far outweigh their female counterparts, who may only weigh between 330 and 650 pounds. In general, though, a bear's weight fluctuates significantly throughout the year, with some bears packing on 50 percent more body weight over the course of a successful hunting season, then losing it over the course of their long fasting months.

2. But technically, they're marine mammals.

A shot from below of two polar bears swimming in clear blue water
iStock

Because they spend so much of their lives on ice, rather than land, polar bears are the only bears to be considered marine mammals. They hunt, court, and mate out on the ice, spending many months of the year far from land.

3. They're higher on the food chain than we are.

A large polar bear opens its mouth in a roar.
iStock

Human beings aren't as high on the global food chain as you might think. Polar bears don't have any natural predators, and their intensely carnivorous diet puts them at the top of the food chain with species like killer whales, according to researchers, while humans fall somewhere closer to the middle. Don't worry too much about getting eaten by one, though—a 2017 study found that during the past 144 years, there have only been 20 fatal polar bear attacks in all of the five countries that have polar bear populations. However, as food becomes more scarce for the bears, humans living in polar territory may soon face more risk from starving bears.

4. They're loners ...

A polar bear walks across a large field of ice.
iStock

Other than the two to three years a cub spends with its mother, polar bears are pretty much solitary creatures. Adults spend only a few days a year mating, then go on their own way, spreading out to hunt on their own. They rely on the scent left by the sweat glands on their paws to track other bears, using the smell to sense where potential mates might be headed, among other things.

5. ... but are sometimes willing to share.

A polar bear sleeps cuddled next to her cub.
Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Polar bears can play nice with each other sometimes. On occasion, they will hang out together in large groups, especially if there's a big meal that multiple bears can take part in, like a whale carcass. When they do spend time together (in what's called a sleuth), male bears will play-fight with each other, wrestling and swatting at each other without doing any real harm. According to the documentary Polar Bears: Spy on the Ice, polar bears can recognize friends they've met before even if they go without seeing each other for many years.

6. They're picky eaters.

A polar bear shares food with a cub.
iStock

When food is plentiful, polar bears are very selective about what they eat. They hunt seals, but if there are plenty available to hunt, they won't eat their whole catch. Instead, they'll only eat the energy-rich blubber (up to 100 pounds at a time), leaving the rest of the carcass for other animals to scavenge. When hunting is good, their diet is made up of about 90 to 95 percent fat. When times are lean, though, they'll happily branch out, eating reindeer, rodents, eggs, seaweed, and anything else they can get their claws on. However, because their bodies are so much better at digesting fat than protein, researchers think that if Arctic ice continues to melt and polar bears become unable access the ice (with its blubber-rich seals), they won't be able to get enough calories on land to survive [PDF].

7. They spend a lot of time fasting.

A polar bear sprawls out on its stomach.
iStock

When they're not out on the ice scoping out seals, polar bears spend an incredible amount of time fasting. The female polar bears fast longer than any other mammal species—in Canada's Hudson Bay, pregnant polar bears can fast up to 240 days, or almost eight months. There's reason to think they'll be fasting even longer in the future as sea ice melts, leaving bears with fewer hunting opportunities and less time to accumulate the fat stores needed to get through the lean months. During the 1980s, non-pregnant polar bears spent 120 days fasting between hunting seasons, but researchers now think that the bears will have to go without food longer and longer, fasting for as much as 180 days at a time in the future.

8. They will travel far to find dinner.

Two polar bears walk through the snow.
iStock

The average bear might travel across 100,000 square miles in its lifetime, and that number may be getting higher. In 2013, a bear searcher told the BBC that polar bears were spending 9 to 13 percent more time being active to make up for the fact that the ice they hunt on is drifting faster, leaving them walking on a "treadmill" just to stay within their territory. One bear tracked by the WWF traveled almost 2300 miles from Norway to Russia in less than a year. Due to receding ice, polar bears have to walk farther to find prey, wasting valuable energy. The energy they gain from eating a single ringed seal might not even make up for what they expend trying to find and catch it.

9. They can swim for days.

A polar bear swims toward the camera.
iStock

Polar bears are savvy swimmers, paddling at an average speed of 6 miles per hour. And it's a good thing: Due to all that melting ice, polar bears are putting their swimming skills to lengthy use. In 2011, a study reported that a tagged female polar bear swam a total of 426 miles in one nine-day stretch across the Beaufort Sea above Alaska, losing 22 percent of her body weight in the process. Another bear in the study swam for 12 days, though she at least stopped to take some breaks.

10. They get hot fast.

A wet polar bear sticks its tongue out.
iStock

You'd think with all that plunging in Arctic waters, polar bears might get chilly occasionally. But since they're built to withstand extreme cold on a regular basis, they actually have the opposite problem: They overheat very easily, and are more likely to die from the heat than the cold. Their two layers of fur and solid layer of body fat (up to 4.5 inches thick) keep their metabolic rate consistent when temperatures reach as low as -34° F. They can sprint up to 30 miles per hour if need be, but much like you wouldn't want to run a race in a heavy ski jacket, polar bears can't spend much time chasing after their prey lest they overheat—a bear's body temperature can rise to feverish temps if they move too fast. On land, they typically only walk at speeds of three miles an hour, and their main hunting technique involves staying very still for hours or days at a time, waiting for a seal to emerge from the ice to breathe.

11. They've been getting it on with grizzlies.

A polar bear sits with her two cubs.
iStock

In addition to changing their travel patterns and dinner prospects, climate change is altering polar bears' love lives. As the ice-traversing bears are forced to spend more time on the tundra, their habitats are starting to overlap with those of grizzly bears. In some places, the two species are getting more comfortable with each other, with amorous results. In Alaska and western Canada, grizzlies and polar bears are doing more cross-breeding, creating hybrid offspring.

12. They grow a lot in their first few months.

A polar bear cub sits on its mother's back.
iStock

At birth, polar bears weigh anywhere from 16 to 24 ounces—about what a guinea pig does. As newborns, they're blind, toothless, and only about a foot long. But by the time they emerge from their den for the first time around four months later, they are substantially larger, weighing between 22 and 33 pounds. In addition to nursing, they'll begin eating solid food around that time, and by 8 months old, they'll weigh 100 pounds or more.

13. They have huge feet.

A polar bear swipes its paws in the water.
iStock

In order to balance on ice, polar bears boast giant feet. Their paws can measure up to 12 inches in diameter, acting like snowshoes to spread out their weight on thin ice and deep snow. The bumpy papillae (like the ones on your tongue) on their footpads help grip the ice, keeping them from sliding around. They also have long, curved claws that can measure almost 4 inches—all the better to grab onto slippery seals.

14. They don't hibernate.

A polar bear leaps into the water.
iStock

While black bears, grizzlies, and other bear species spend each winter denning, forgoing eating, drinking, moving, pooping, and peeing for months on end, polar bears stay active all winter. Polar bears don't need to sleep through the winter, though, because there's plenty of food available to them in the coldest months, when they take to the sea ice to hunt for seals. The only exception is during pregnancy, when a female polar bear digs herself a den and remains sealed inside, surviving off her stores of fat, until her cubs grow large enough to survive outdoors.

15. They love to nap during snowstorms.

Two polar bears sleep covered in snow.
iStock

Polar bears may not hibernate, but they are happy to lay low when bad weather hits. During the winter, they dig themselves into shallow pits in the snow to protect themselves from wind, sometimes remaining there for days as the snow piles up on top of them like a warm blanket. Sometimes, they take a similar approach to staying cool, digging through the tundra down to the permafrost during the summer to keep from overheating.

16. They're very hard to track.

A polar bear wears a tracking collar.
Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Considering how far they travel—both walking and swimming—over a given year, you can imagine how hard it is for scientists to track polar bears. By nature, they spend a huge amount of time alone in remote locations. Scientists use boats, helicopters, and low-flying planes to observe them, but that only works in good weather and in certain locations. So recently, they've turned to satellites, fitting bears with non-invasive radio collars and tracking them through high-resolution satellite imagery. It's cheaper than sending out a helicopter, and it lets researchers identify bears even in the most remote areas of the Arctic.

17. Their nostrils close while they swim.

A swimming polar bear peeks its nose out of the water.
iStock

Polar bears don't have to worry about getting water up their nose. When they swim, their nostrils close to prevent them from breathing in water. They can swim at depths up to 15 feet, and while they typically only dive for a few seconds, they can hold their breath for more than two minutes, enabling them to sneak up on seals resting on ice floes. In 2015, scientists reported observing a record-breaking polar bear dive that totaled 3 minutes and 10 seconds. The hungry bear stalked three seals from afar, swimming almost 150 feet underwater without surfacing for a breath or to reorient himself to the seals' location before bursting out of the water where one of the seals was resting. (Sadly, his prey got away.)

18. They can turn green in captivity.

A polar bear in a zoo swims with a ball.
Ina Fassbender, AFP/Getty Images

Though polar bears are sometimes known as the white bear, they aren't white. Their hair is colorless and hollow, and only appears white because of the way light scatters through their fur. (Under that mass of hair, their skin is as black as their noses.) When bears are subject to warmer temperatures in captivity, though, they can take on a bit of a verdant hue. Algae infestations can turn polar bears green, and not just on the outer layer of their fur. The colorful algae grows inside the hollow tube of each hair. This green growth thrives in humid climates, like Singapore, where the bears don't naturally live.

19. They'll never meet a penguin.

A Bulgarian stamp set featuring a polar bear, a seal, penguins, and a walrus.
State Agency for Information Technology and Communications of Bulgaria, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

Though you might see polar bears and penguins together in Coca-Cola ads or on winter-themed pajamas, the two species never mix in real life. They live at opposite ends of the Earth, though they both spend their days in icy waters. Polar bears exclusively inhabit the Arctic, and penguins only live in the Southern Hemisphere. The closest they ever get is when they live in the same zoo.

20. At one zoo, they poop glitter.

Gold glitter on a black background
iStock

At the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Canada, the polar bears have sparkly poop. In 2014, zookeepers began feeding each of their bears a different color of non-toxic glitter so that they could trace their bowel movements, analyzing the samples to identify health issues, track stress hormones, and generally see how the bears are dealing with zoo life. The colors help the zookeepers label which poop comes from which bear.

21. Europeans have kept them in captivity since the 13th century.

A 1938, black-and-white photo of a polar bear lying on its back in a zoo
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Captive polar bears have piqued public curiosity since as early as the Middle Ages, when the bears were occasionally given to European royalty by Viking traders. In the 1200s, when Henry III kept one in London, it was muzzled and chained but allowed to catch fish and swim in the Thames River. In the 17th century, Frederick I of Prussia kept a defanged and declawed polar bear, staging public fights between it and other large mammals for public amusement.

22. Posing with them was once a popular German pastime.

The orange cover of 'Teddybär' shows a person in a polar bear suit with his arms wrapped around a smiling boy.
Innocences

In the early 20th century, getting a picture with a man dressed in a polar bear suit was a fairly standard activity in Germany, at least according to the many photos found by French photo collector Jeann-Marie Donat. Donat spent 20 years tracking down the vintage photos, taken between 1920 and 1960, for his 2016 book Teddybär. There are several potential explanations for why so many Germans elected to stop for photos with people in polar bear suits (or to dress up as polar bears themselves). Donat suggests that it might trace back to the popularity of the two polar bears that arrived at the Berlin Zoo in the 1920s, while Hyperallergic notes that the costume was created as a Fanta advertising stunt, designed to distract Germans from the horrors of World War II. The photos show people young and old posing next to bears at the beach, in parks, in the street, in the summer and winter, alone and in groups. They all look delighted to get a chance at a polar-bear souvenir.

23. They can be ... polarizing.

Knut and his handler pose for photos lying down on their bellies.
John Macdougall, AFP/Getty Images

Knut, a polar bear cub born at the Berlin Zoological Garden in 2006, was hand-raised by zookeepers after being abandoned by his mother at birth. The cute cub became an instant tourist attraction—the most famous bear in the world, even—and the zoo's attendance rates skyrocketed, netting an extra $1.35 million in tickets when the bear began making twice-a-day public appearances.

But not everyone was psyched about "Knutmania." The young bear's popularity proved to be controversial for animal rights organizations like PETA, whose German spokesperson Frank Albrecht said the zoo should have let the orphaned Knut die rather than continue hand-feeding him, a process that he called a "gross violation of animal protection laws." In 2007, the bear received an anonymous, handwritten death threat from a hater who simply wrote "Knut is dead! Thursday midday." The zoo took the fax seriously enough to assign triple the amount of zookeepers keeping watch over the polar bear during his daily public romp. (Knut continued to live at the Berlin zoo until his death at age 4 from an autoimmune disease.)

24. They sometimes get the celebrity treatment.

Photographers crowd in front of a barrier to photograph Knut at a zoo.
John Macdougall, AFP/Getty Images

In 2007, celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz photographed Knut for the cover of Vanity Fair's annual "Green" issue. While Knut appeared solo on the cover of the German edition, he was Photoshopped into an image with Leonardo DiCaprio for the American edition. After his death, the Berlin zoo erected a bronze statue in his honor, and his body was preserved for display at the city’s natural history museum.

25. Churchill, Canada has a unique way of living with them.

A green sign in a snowy field reads 'Polar Bear Alert: Stop.'
Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Churchill, a town in Manitoba, Canada on the shores of the Hudson Bay, is known as the polar bear capital of the world. During the fall, hundreds of polar bears pass through on their way to their icy hunting grounds on the bay, waiting nearby as the ice hardens for the winter. The locals have adopted unique ways of living with the hungry bears. Many don't lock their doors, so that if someone is running away from a polar bear, they can duck into any doorway. Since Halloween falls right in the middle of polar bear season in town, city employees, police officers, volunteer fire officials, and polar bear conservationists stay on patrol to drive away any bears that might be tempted to go trick-or-treating themselves, using helicopters, sirens, air horns, rubber bullets, and more to keep the bears at bay. Kids, for their part, aren't allowed to wear anything white for the evening.

Churchill also runs a "polar bear jail" for bears that continue to wander into town. Residents are encouraged to call the Polar Bear Alert Program hotline year-round if they see a bear in town, and conservation officers will come and try to scare it away. If shooting loud scare rounds at the bear doesn't do the trick, they trap the bear, or, if all else fails, hit it with a tranquilizer dart and take it to the Polar Bear Holding Facility. The specially-designed compound can hold up to 30 bears and is meant to keep bears that are aggressive or persistently return to the community. When the bay freezes, these bears are transported by helicopter or vehicle onto the ice, where they resume their normal winter hunting routine. With warmer temperatures keeping bears off the ice for longer and longer periods, more towns may soon have to learn from Churchill's strategies for peaceful coexistence.

The Biologists and Activists Fighting to Save Endangered Tapirs in Costa Rica

Stephanie Vermillion
Stephanie Vermillion

Costa Rican biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora was just 5 years old the first time he saw a tapir, and he immediately fell in love with the large, unusual animal. "The tapir was walking on the beach close to Corcovado National Park," he says of the moment that helped impact his future career. "It was a highlight for me; it led me to do what I do now."

Twenty-five years later, Brenes-Mora is a tapir expert and founder of Nai Conservation, a Costa Rican organization that is working to save the endangered species from its worst enemy: humans. Tapirs have been around for some 35 million years, but deforestation, highways through its habitats, and poaching have caused their numbers to drop significantly. It's estimated that the population of the Baird's tapir as decreased by more than 50 percent in just the last three generations. And in turn, what hurts the tapirs hurts the environment.

A Baird's tapir resting on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
A Baird's tapir resting on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

"Tapirs are considered gardeners of the forests; they plant seeds and have a big impact on enriching the soil," Brenes-Mora explains. "The tapirs are even saving us from climate change. There's evidence from the Amazon that when tapirs are gone from certain forests, carbon sequestration in those forests decreases."

Experts have warned that tapirs, and specifically the Baird’s tapir that Brenes-Mora saw on that beach as a child, may soon be classified as critically endangered if current trends are not addressed.

Thankfully, Brenes-Mora has a plan.

 

I’m in Costa Rica on assignment to create an awareness-building film about the endangered tapir species. My colleague Alisha and I have just wrapped one week documenting the work of Nai Conservation, the local tapir research and conservation organization Brenes-Mora founded in 2015, and we're putting the final touches on our film in one of the most heavily tapir-populated (and protected) habitats, Corcovado National Park.

Of course, seeing a tapir in the wild would add an important element to our film, but even after a full week with the passionate, driven team behind Nai Conservation, we haven't seen even one.

This isn't surprising, though; few locals ever encounter the elusive tapir. The Baird's tapir—Tapirus bairdii, or known locally as danta in Spanish—is one of four tapir species in the region. It's indigenous to Central America and is a mammalian relative of the rhinoceros and horse, though it looks much more hog-like than either of the two (it has no relation to either boars or pigs). It is largely nocturnal and spends most of its day resting, hidden in the rainforests before foraging for fruits and berries in the afternoon. This makes spotting one in the wild even more rare, but Brenes-Mora and the Nai team want us to see a tapir as badly as we do.

Biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora is the founder of Nia Conservation.
Biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora is the founder of Nai Conservation.
Stephanie Vermillion

Before launching Nai, Brenes-Mora spent six months in Malaysia after getting his biology degree, working with RIMBA, an NGO studying tigers, flying foxes, and other native wildlife. But since seeing that tapir on the beach when he was young, it had been his childhood dream to work with tapirs, and a fellowship with the Zoological Society of London gave him that chance. According to Brenes-Mora, the fellowships are meant to provide early-career conservationists and biologists an opportunity, through funding and mentorship, to get a foothold in their desired field. For him, that meant tracking tapirs through the highlands of Costa Rica's Talamanca Mountains.

One day in 2015, Brenes-Mora and a friend reached Cerro de la Muerte—Costa Rica's "mountain of death," the highest point on the mountain range. They were discussing creating a logo for the fellowship project, but Brenes-Mora’s friend saw longer-term potential.

"He was like 'whoa, you have more than a logo, you have more than a project, you can actually start something here,'" Brenes-Mora remembers.

And start something he did. The idea quickly evolved into the full-scale conservation project, Nai. (In the indigenous Bribri language of Costa Rica, nai means danta, or tapir.) Under Brenes-Mora's leadership, the organization is bringing together people with a variety of skills to raise awareness and preserve the tapir species. Nai's biologists and veterinarians perform critical, in-the-field research that informs tapir conservation action. The organization's teachers educate children on the tapir species as part of its "Salva-Dantas" program, which prepares youth for a lifetime of helping the tapir. And graphic designers and artists like Mauricio Sanabria, an artist who joined the team as a twentysomething in 2017, create eye-catching signs and other content to help spread the word about Nai—and ultimately the tapir—online and across local communities.

Over the past four years, this seed of a project has grown into a grassroots movement. The team's bright yellow "tapir crossing" stickers—the symbol of support for Nai—are popping up in restaurants, homes, and businesses throughout the country. One delicious example is in Costa Rica's capital city of San José, where Lucía Cole and Mauricio Varela, the founders of Tapir Chocolates, donate a portion of all profits to Nai.

And all the way down in the southwestern-most Osa Peninsula some 200 miles away, two of Nai's biggest supporters, Steven Masis and Deyanira Hernández, plan to guide us through the jungle in search of a tapir.

The founders of Tapir Chocolates donate a portion of their profits to Nai to aid in the conservation of Costa Rica's Baird's tapirs.
The founders of Tapir Chocolates donate a portion of their profits to Nai to aid in the conservation of Costa Rica's Baird's tapirs.
Stephanie Vermillion

Masis and Hernández lead wildlife tours across the tropical Osa Peninsula, including through the country's popular, secluded Corcovado National Park. Both in their early thirties and with backgrounds in biology, Masis and Hernández join Nai and its partners on virtually all research trips through the remote, 160-square-mile park. Of all the places to spot tapirs in Costa Rica, Corcovado's dense, foggy rainforests—accessible only by boat or tiny plane—are the best bet. But even with their exceptional tapir-sighting success rate, these two activists don't take those sightings for granted.

Any encounter with the endangered tapir is rare and special. Due to threats like poaching (its hide is highly valuable on the black market), habitat loss, road kills, and trafficking, populations are plummeting throughout its Central American habitat. At this point, Brenes-Mora estimates only 1500 tapirs remain in Costa Rica, and research suggests that the total population of Baird’s tapirs in the entire region is only around 3000.

The possibility of losing the tapir species is problematic for planet Earth. The tapir holds a unique ecological "superpower" that’s becoming more important by the second: the ability to help combat climate change. They can eat over 200 pounds of fruit, plants, and seeds a day, and in the process, they essentially clear the forest floor, till the ground with their rummaging, and spread the seeds that they eat through transference and droppings. And they've been doing this for millions of years.

 

Despite the challenges, the tapir movement is not all doom and gloom. Earlier that week, I joined Nai for an afternoon installing "tapir crossing" road signs in central Costa Rica's Cerro de la Muerte mountains, and saw several indicators of success throughout the day.

For one, even erecting these street signs is progress. The team used trap-photo data and subsequent tapir and road traffic models to project exactly where traffic accidents occur most frequently, and they have used that data to convince the transportation department and local communities to allow tapir-crossing signs at high-risk sections along the busy Inter-American Highway, which runs right through tapir habitat.

The Nai Conservation team installs tapir crossing road signs in Costa Rica.
The Nai Conservation team installs tapir crossing road signs in Costa Rica.
Stephanie Vermillion

"All of our decisions are based on actual data," Brenes-Mora says. "Based on that data, we start making decisions and lobby to include our ideas into policy.”

Brenes-Mora, a pragmatic biologist who has formed strong working relationships with key government leaders and NGOs, is hesitant to claim the decrease in road kills as a success just yet. A couple of years is not enough time to impact the population of a large mammal, he says (especially one with a 400-day gestation period for a single calf—repopulating the species will take a very long time).

But four years is enough time to create a widespread, engaging movement among locals. From Brenes-Mora's perspective, this unity surrounding the tapir is the ultimate success.

"Without people, it doesn't matter if we have protected areas, it doesn't matter if we're protecting the populations," he says. "Without engaging people, we won't be able to secure the species in the long term."

While Nai is his brainchild and tapirs are his lifeblood, Brenes-Mora doesn't want the future of Nai—or, more importantly, the tapir species—to depend solely on him.

"I'm always asking myself 'what will happen when I die?'" he muses. "I don't want tapirs to be unattended if something happens to me. I don't want to be the tapir guy, I want Nai to be the tapir group. I want all the members of the team to be the tapir people. It's hard to do that, but we're on the right track."

With the future in mind, Brenes-Mora is priming people like Nai research lead and team veterinarian Jorge Rojas, artist Mauricio Sanabria, and dozens of other dedicated team members to help carry the tapir mission forward. They tour and give talks, like at a recent weeklong event they hosted at the University of Costa Rica with the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation, where Brenes-Mora and Rojas spoke at a symposium for students, professors, and activists about threats to tapirs, their importance to the environment, and how to best help and protect them.

That's why our trip down to Corcovado National Park is a milestone for the movement—the plight of the tapir is generally less known than that of the whale or tiger or rhino. Raising awareness about the tapir is one of its best chances at survival.

 

Alisha and I had originally planned to take the two-day Corcovado trek on our own, but after some consideration (and likely Brenes-Mores's urging, given the rough terrain we'd be facing—i.e. jungle off-roading), Sanabria joined us for a chance to see the animal he's been working so hard to save. For all the work he has done as a researcher and activist and the time he's spent in the field, he has yet to see a tapir in the wild.

Suddenly, our naturalist guide bursts from the forest yelling, "Un tapir! Un tapir!," and Sanabria takes off running. Despite the fact that Masis and Hernández see tapirs more regularly than most, they're leading our 100-yard blitz down the beach with him—smiling their "Christmas morning grins" every step of the way.

Finally, after much huffing and puffing, we've made it. We've caught up with our guides and are now face to face with the remarkable tapir we drove hundreds of miles to see.

Nai Conservation researcher and activist Mauricio Sanabria with a tapir on the beach in Costa Rica's Corcorvado National Park.
Nai Conservation researcher and activist Mauricio Sanabria with a tapir on the beach in Costa Rica's Corcorvado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

We're awestruck and on adrenaline highs, but the tapir couldn't be less interested in the five of us. He offers a polite nod between super-sized mouthfuls of vegetation, but he has business to attend to—like strolling along the shoreline, urinating in the ocean, and then passing out in the sun.

Sanabria locks eyes with the now-sleepy tapir, and in a moment of near-solitude with the elusive creature, Sanabria can feel the magnitude of the work he's been doing.

"It's touching to finally see what you're working for," he says. "It's a little sign of hope."

A Baird's tapir on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
A Baird's tapir on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER