How Far can Polar Bears Smell? (Further Than You Think!)

Polar bears’ sense of smell is so potent that they can smell a seal from up to 20 miles (32km) away! They’re able to sniff out seal dens despite being covered with snow and easily find an air hole in the sea ice from a mile away. 

As explained on Sea World, polar bears’ sense of smell is their most important asset for hunting prey. Once bears find seal holes, they will wait patiently, until the seal comes up and grab it. Some bears have actually been seen waiting without moving near a seal hole for up to 14 hours!

How Far can Polar Bears Smell

Their sharp smell is considered to be seven times better than that of the bloodhound and 2100 times better than that of humans. Their highly sensitive noses are key to their feeding habits but are often a “culprit” for their increased presence in urban areas. 

When their natural food sources are lacking, their potent smell lures them into urban areas with human foods, including trashcans, pet food, leftovers from campers, barbecues, etc. 

This article explores all about polar bears’ powerful sense of smell and its role in their survival. 

Can Polar Bears Smell Through Ice?

Polar bears have adapted so they can spell through both ice and snow. They can smell seals hidden under ice and snow up to a mile away. Their sharp sense of smell is essential for their success in hunting and allows them to track ringed seals, bearded seals, and other prey.

Bears’ impressive sense of smell is a result of their olfactory bulb which is at least five times larger than that of humans, even though a bear’s brain is one-third the size of a human brain.  

Their noses allow them to easily smell through the ice because it’s full of hundreds of tiny muscles which allow the bears to manipulate them with a dexterity similar to the one that humans have with their fingers.

This video shows how polar bears hunt for seals:

Their extraordinary sense of smell is a result of the number of olfactory nerve endings they have: much more than in any other animal. And, their brain is much better at processing their olfactory senses than it does process the ones coming from their other senses. 

Their smell is a trait that developed through evolution and thousands of years of survival. And, their big nose is supportive of their sense of smell. It allows this majestic mammal to identify even the slightest of smells effortlessly. 

Related Article: Polar Bear vs Grizzly Bear

Why Do Polar Bears Have a Potent Sense of Smell? 

Polar bears have a powerful sense of smell due to their high number of olfactory nerve endings. The olfactory bulb is a small organ located in the forehead, behind the eyes. It interprets all of the odors our noses come across. 

Smell plays a crucial role in the polar bears’ survival because it allows them to find prey, even buried under ice. In most cases, this bear uses its sense of smell more often than it uses other senses like its sight and hearing.

Here are the main ways in which their sharp sense helps them:

1. For Food

The sense of smell is key to a polar bear’s hunting for seals, carcasses, fish, etc. This isn’t an easy task at all, considering how harsh the Arctic is. 

Thanks to their potent sense of smell, they’re pointed right into the direction of food. Their sniffs lead them to a potential food source, which is pivotal considering how many calories this mammal needs daily to survive. 

Throughout their evolution, bears have developed into one of the most efficient predators. Their sense of smell reduces energy waste when searching for food as their nose leads them directly to the food. 

Read Also: Do Bears Yawn?

2. To Find a Mating Partner

In order for their population to continue, polar bears need to mate with a partner

This is where their potent sense of smell comes to the rescue. According to research, polar bears leave their one-of-a-kind scent as they walk on the ice. 

Each polar bear has its own scent. This allows them to recognize each other and discover their identity-whether a polar bear is a male or a female.

Related Article: Do Polar Bears Eat Seals?

3. It Helps the Mother Bear Keep Her Cubs Together

Unlike humans who keep an eye on their kids to make sure they’re safe, polar bear mothers keep a nose on their cubs

Their powerful smell helps them locate their cubs and keep them as close as possible to themselves until they grow up. 

By using her smell, a mother cub is also able to notice any potential threats to its cubs, whether it’s other bears or some other predators. When she senses danger, she will transfer her cubs to where she thinks it’s safer.

Read More: How Many Cubs do Bears Have?

Is the Polar Bear’s Sense of Smell the Strongest of all Bears?

All bears have a potent sense of smell thanks to their high number of scent receptors and although that of the polar bear is extraordinary, other species of bears are also known for a sharp nose. Bears have the best sense of smell among all terrestrial mammals.

According to World Atlas, one species of a bear stands out when it comes to its sense of smell and it’s the silver tipped grizzly (a type of brown bear) that lives in North America.  Grizzlies will easily find the carcass of an elk underwater thanks to their sense of smell. 

The black bear’s sense of smell is also amazing-it can smell food a mile or two away! According to NPS, one black bear in California traveled three miles to get to a dead deer’s carcass.

Bears don’t just use their strong sense of smell to procure food; namely, male polar bears use their keen sense of smell and travel long distances to locate a potential mate. 

Related Article: Do Polar Bears Eat Arctic Foxes?


Polar bears have one of the strongest senses of smell in the animal kingdom and it helps them survive on the daily, whether they’re locating food, searching for a potential breeding mate, or keeping their cubs safe. 

The sense of smell of the polar bear and other bears has developed throughout their evolution and they’re known to have much more olfactory nerve endings than humans, bloodhounds, and numerous other species. 

Polar bears regularly rely on their nose to search for ringed and bearded seals under ice blocks and have no problem walking long distances to locate a carcass or some other food source. 

In addition to the polar bear, other species of bears like the black and brown bear have a strong nose. Some of them even use it more than their other senses such as hearing for survival.

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