12 Polar Bear Adaptations (That Keep them Alive!)

Polar bears have several adaptations that enable them to live in the arctic. These adaptations have made them very different to other types of bears.

Unlike other bears, polar bears are almost entirely carnivorous, with a diet that consists primarily of ringed and bearded seals. This is because they live in environments that lack vegetation. They also have significant body fat and fur that insulates them against the cold water and air temperatures.

Their large size also gives them an advantage over potential prey. The polar bear’s main predators are humans and orcas, although walruses and brown bears may kill them on occasion.

Below are 11 polar bear adaptations that have helped them live in the arctic.

Polar Bear Adaptations

Polar Bear Adaptations

1. Thick Fur

Type of Adaptation: Structural

The outer layer of a polar bear’s fur is composed of long, hollow guard hairs that help to insulate the bear’s body and prevent heat loss.

Underneath the guard hairs is a dense layer of short, downy fur that further improves insulation. This thick coat of fur keeps polar bears warm even when temperatures dip as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit.

In addition to providing insulation, the fur also helps to camouflage polar bears as they hunt for seals on the ice. The fur is what makes polar bears look white (their skin is actually black!)

Read Also: How Far can Polar Bears Smell?

2. Large Paws

Type of Adaptation: Structural

One reason polar bears have large paws is that the paws’ surface area helps them to distribute their weight evenly, which is important for walking on ice. The more distributed the weight, the less likely it is for the bear to break the ice.

The paws also have thick padded soles and sharp claws, which help the bears to grip the ice and give them traction when they are walking or swimming.

The large size of the paws also helps the bears to swim faster and stay afloat in water.

In addition, the paws help the bears to catch fish and other prey. The sharp claws can tear through flesh, and the paws can be used to swat prey or knock it down.

Related Article: Do Polar Bears Eat Arctic Foxes?

3. Layer of Fat

Type of Adaptation: Structural

Polar bears have a thick layer of fat for two primary reasons.

First, fat helps to keep them warm in their icy environment. Temperatures in the arctic can get as low as -60 degrees, and yet they still manage to regulate their body temperature.

Second, it provides them with an energy reserve that they can draw on when food is scarce. When a polar bear is hunting, it may expend a great deal of energy in pursuit of its prey. Having a thick layer of fat helps to ensure that the bear will have the energy it needs to continue hunting even when food is scarce.

In addition, polar bears use their fat reserves to help them survive long periods of fasting during the Arctic winter. Thus, the thick layer of fat that polar bears possess serves an important purpose in their survival.

Related Article: How Much Does a Polar Bear Weigh?

4. Black Skin

Type of Adaptation: Structural

Polar bears have black skin for a very practical reason: it helps them to absorb heat from the sun.

While they are often portrayed as being white, polar bears actually have translucent fur that covers their black skin. This combination helps them to camouflage well in their snowy surroundings and to blend in with the ice so that they can ambush their prey.

Additionally, the black skin helps to absorb sunlight and keep the bear warm in cold temperatures. So while it may seem like an odd color for a polar bear, it actually serves an important purpose.

5. Excellent Sense of Smell

Type of Adaptation: Physiological

Polar bears can smell potential prey as far as 20 miles away if they are downwind from the prey. They can also smell prey that is up to 3 feet under the snow and ice.

They can achieve this because of their very large noses and well-adapted noses. This gives them a larger surface area for smelling, which allows them to detect odors from farther away.

Additionally, polar bears have a large number of olfactory receptors, which are the cells that detect smells. In fact, they have roughly twice as many olfactory receptors as dogs do.

This allows them to not only smell faint odors from great distances, but also to track prey that is hidden underground in seal dens.

Thanks to their superb sense of smell, polar bears are able to stay well-fed even in the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

6. Excellent Swimming Ability

Type of Adaptation: Structural

It’s not uncommon for polar bears to swim over 30 miles at a time. Their ability to swim sets them apart from other species of bears and has three main benefits.

Firstly, polar bears rely on the ocean for food and must be able to access areas where there is a high concentration of seals.

Secondly, swimming also helps them to avoid predators, escape from danger, and travel to new hunting grounds.

Thirdly, polar bears migrate throughout the year, and sometimes they swim for migratory purposes.

The long distances that polar bears swim are a testament to their strength and endurance. With their powerful limbs and large webbed paws, they are able to cover vast distances with ease.

Go Deeper: Can Polar Bears Breathe Underwater?

7. Migration

Type of Adaptation: Behavioral

Each year, polar bears undertake a north-south migration in response to the changing ice pack.

In the spring, as the ice pack begins to break up and recede northward, polar bears must move north in order to stay within their preferred habitat.

Similarly, in the fall, as the ice pack begins to expand and advance southward, polar bears must once again migrate south in order to remain within their comfortable range.

This annual migration is essential for polar bears, as it allows them to remain within their optimal habitat and access the necessary food and resources for survival. As a result, the annual north-south migration is essential for the survival of polar bears.

8. Speed

Type of Adaptation: Structural

Polar bears can run up to 25 miles per hour. However, they typically only maintain this speed for short bursts. This speed is mostly utilized for short bursts chasing down seals.

When polar bears are running, they often lope along with their head and body low to the ground. This helps them to conserve energy and avoid overheating.

Polar bears must be able to outrun their prey, which can include seals and walruses. As a result, the ability to run fast is essential for the survival of polar bears in the wild.

9. They Can Climb Cliffs and Ice Floes

Type of Adaptation: Behavioral

Polar bears have been filmed scaling cliffs in order to raid tern nests and eat their eggs.

As polar bears’ habitats are changing with climate change, they’re finding themselves short on food to eat. As a result, they are increasingly turning to nest-raiding for food.

This nest raiding has caused serious downturns in bird populations in the arctic.

As climate change worsens, polar bears will continue to use this climbing adaptation to get food and stay alive.

10. Carnivorous Diet

Type of Adaptation: Behavioral

Polar bears are the only type of bear that is carnivorous. While polar bears will occasionally eat other types of food, such as berries or kelp, seals make up the vast majority of their diet.

The reason for this is that seals are an extremely rich source of fat, which is essential for polar bears to survive in their cold habitat. Without this fat, polar bears would quickly starve to death. For this reason, polar bears have evolved to be expert hunters of seals.

In fact, polar bears will often travel hundreds of miles just to reach areas where seals are known to congregate.

Go Deeper: Do Polar Bears Hunt Humans?

11. White Appearance

Type of Adaptation: Structural

Polar bears are skilled at camouflage. Their white fur helps them blend in with their snowy surroundings, making it easier for them to sneak up on their prey.

Polar bears are adept at using the landscape to their advantage, hiding behind ice floes and rocks to ambush their prey.

Scientists believe that polar bears have evolved to be such skilled hunters in part because of the harsh conditions of their environment. With long, cold winters and limited food sources, polar bears must be able to make the most of every opportunity to catch prey.

As a result, they have developed keen hunting instincts and an ability to blend in with their surroundings.

12. Non-Shivering Thermogenesis

Polar bears use a physiological process called “non-shivering thermogenesis”. This means that their bodies produce heat directly, rather than producing energy.

Most mammals, including all other types of bears, convert their food into energy. This energy is used to move their muscles.

So, most mammals will shiver (move their muscles really fast) to warm up. This shivering turns energy into heat. In other words, most mammals need to convert food into energy, then shiver to turn that energy into heat.

Polar bears don’t have to do that.

Instead of turning food into energy, polar bears turn it straight into heat! They don’t have to shiver to create heat … their body is naturally good at heat generation.

Read Next: How Much Does a Polar Bear Weigh?


Polar bears are a keystone species in the Arctic ecosystem. They play an important role in keeping the ecosystem in balance. As climate change continues to worsen, polar bears will be increasingly threatened. It will be essential for them to continue to adapt to their environments (i.e. use behavioral adaptions) for them to survive.

Polar bear adaptations include their thick fur and thick blubber that help them to survive in their cold environment, their large paws for walking on ice, and their ability to migrate to find food and stay in cold environments.

Skip to content