Polar bear diet

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A Polar Bear and its 2 cubs feeding on a Bearded Seal. Hinlopen Strait, Spitsbergen.
© iStockPhoto / Peter Zwitser
Polar bears are the top predator in the arctic marine ecosystem.
Because the polar bear's body requires a diet based on large amounts of seal fat, they are the most carnivorous member of the bear family.

Food can be hard to come by for polar bears for much of the year. The bear puts on most of its yearly fat reserves between late April and mid-July to maintain its weight in the lean seasons.


The food-free season can last 3 to 4 months -- or even longer in areas like Canada's Hudson Bay. As the Arctic warms due to climate change, the ice pack is forming later in the season, and bears must wait longer to begin hunting again.
 / ©: naturepl.com / Steven Kazlowski / WWF-Canon
© naturepl.com / Steven Kazlowski / WWF-Canon

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Did you know?

4.4 pounds of fat
How much the average polar bear can consume in a day.

10-20% of body weight
How much the bear's enormous stomach can hold

What do polar bears eat?

Seals

Seals are a particularly energy-rich food source, especially for hungry mothers and their growing cubs.

Polar bears can devour huge amounts of fat from seals when this prey is abundant.  Polar bears largely eat ringed and bearded seals, but depending upon their location, they may eat harp, hooded and ribbon seal.

A 121-pound seal can provide 8 days worth of energy - but the bear needs to eat much more in order to store up reserves.

When there are plenty of seals, adult polar bears only eat the fat, leaving the carcass for scavengers such as foxes, ravens and younger bears.


 / ©: WWF / Sindre Kinnerød
A ringed seal swimming in waters off Svalbard, Norway.
© WWF / Sindre Kinnerød

Did you know?

Don't move!
The polar bear often relies on "still hunting" -- patiently waiting next to a hole in the ice until it senses a surfacing seal.

Hunting by smell
Using its sense of smell, the polar bear will locate seal birth lairs, and then break through the lair's roof in order to catch its prey.

Carcasses

 / ©: iStockPhoto / Karel Delvoye
Polar bear with seal carcass.
© iStockPhoto / Karel Delvoye
Polar bears use their sense of smell to detect a carcass from nearly 20 miles away.

They will happily feed on the carcasses of beluga whales, grey whales, walruses, narwhals and bowhead whales when available.

Did you know?

Learning to hunt
The adolescent polar bear often has to scavenge on the carcasses of other bears' kills while learning to develop its own hunting skills
.

When food is scarce

 / ©: Carsten Egevang, www.arc-pic.com
Muskoxen. Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
© Carsten Egevang, www.arc-pic.com
Polar bears may attempt to find alternate prey on shore, including muskox, reindeer, small rodents, waterfowl, shellfish, fish, eggs, kelp, berries and even human garbage.

Occasionally, the bears will hunt beluga whales and adult walrus.

Did you know?

Efficient digestion
The bear's digestive system absorbs approximately 84%of the protein and 97%of the fat it consumes.

On the menu

    • Ringed seals
    • Bearded seals
    • Harp, hooded, and the occasional ribbon seal
    • Walrus
    • Narwhal
    • Beluga whale
    • Grey whale (scavenged)
    • Bowhead whale (scavenged)
    • Muskox
    • Reindeer
    • Small rodents
    • Seabirds
    • Shellfish
    • Fish
    • Eggs
    • Kelp
    • Berries
    • Human garbage!

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