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This week’s endangered species is the polar bear (Ursus maritimus)(photo from http://worldwildlife.org/species/polar-bear). These powerful symbols of the arctic weigh between 500 and 1000 lbs (and even up to 1400 lbs!), feeding primarily on ringed seals (U.S. FWS 2009). Polar bears are extremely strong swimmers and can live from 25 to 30 years in the wild. To live in the harsh arctic climate, they have evolved several different adaptations to stay warm – they’ve got a thick layer of blubber and are covered in a thick layer of insulating fur. Although the fur is white (providing camouflage in their white, icy environment), the skin underneath is actually black, allowing it to absorb the sun’s rays. Even the soles of the polar bear’s feet are covered in fur (National Geographic ND).
At around 3-5 years of age, polar bears are ready to reproduce (U.S. FWS 2009). Females dig dens in the arctic ice and give birth during the winter, usually to twins. The young stay with the female for over two years, in order to learn survival skills. All parental care is given by the female; in fact, the females must protect the young from the males who have been known to kill the cubs (National Geographic ND).
The polar bear population is currently estimated at 20,000-25,000 (U.S. FWS 2009). Polar bears are listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened (U.S. FWS 2013) and listed on Appendix II of CITES, with primary threats to the population being the loss of sea ice, due to climate change. Several international agreements are in place to try to protect the polar bear and its habitat; Canada is the only nation with polar bears that currently allows sports hunting of this species (Washington Post 2013). Unfortunately, there was recently a set-back for polar bear protection at the international meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora. The group rejected a U.S. proposal to ban the global trade of polar bear parts. Canadian Inuits led the opposition (citing the need for international trade to protect their economy); 42 countries opposed the U.S. proposal, 38 voted in favor, and 46 members, including the 27 members of the European Union, abstained. Truly a disappointing day in the history of polar bear conservation.
Why should we care about the polar bear? As stated on the World Wildlife Federation’s website: “Polar bears are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Over thousands of years, polar bears have also been an important part of the cultures and economies of Arctic peoples. Polar bears depend on sea ice for their existence and are directly impacted by climate change—serving as important indicator species.” To learn more about the polar bear and what you can do to help, be sure to visit: http://worldwildlife.org/species/polar-bear
Eilperin, J.. 2013. “U.S. Proposal to Protect Polar Bears Fails.” Washington Post, March 8, 2013.
National Geographic. ND. “Polar Bear Ursus maritimus” Accessed online 3/8/2013. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/polar-bear/
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2013. “Species Profile. Polar Bear (Ursus Maritimus)” Last updated 3/8/2013. Accessed online 3/8/2012. http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A0IJ
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2009. “Polar Bear Ursus maritimus” Last updated October 2009. Accessed online 3/8/2013. http://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/polar_bear.pdf
World Wildlife Fund. 2013. “Polar Bear” Accessed online 3/8/2013. http://worldwildlife.org/species/polar-bear