Circumpolar Arctic of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia


Sea ice, coasts, inland streams and lakes in Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra.

Baby, it’s cold outside!

Perhaps no other animal symbolizes the frozen tundra regions of the Earth as do polar bears. They live on ice and snow, but that’s not a problem—these bears have some cool ways to stay warm!

Hair— An outer coat of long guard hairs that stick together when wet protects a dense, thick undercoat of fur. On land, water rolls right off of the guard hairs. Even though polar bears look white, their hair is really made of clear, hollow tubes filled with air. Scarring or residue on the fur can cause the “white” fur to appear to human eyes as cream colored, yellow, or even pink in the Arctic light.

Fat— Fat acts as a nutritional reserve and energy storage when food can’t be found, and may provide the ability to generate heat to help insulate polar bears from the freezing air and cold water. This fat may also help the bears float in the water. It is 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) thick.

Shelter— Unlike brown bears and black bears, polar bears do not hibernate, and only pregnant females over-winter in dens. While in the den, the pregnant female’s activity level decreases and her metabolism slows down. During this period, she gives birth and nurses her cubs. Sometimes, when weather conditions are particularly rough, other bears may dig temporary shelters, where they spend several days at a time.

Who's the biggest?

The polar bear is the newest of the eight bear species, and scientists believe that the polar bear evolved about 200,000 years ago from brown bear ancestors. Both polar bears and brown bears are big and are the largest land carnivores. But most experts agree that polar bears are the longest bears, as males may measure over 10 feet (3 meters) when standing on their hind legs.

Built to stay warm in their cold habitat, polar bears sometimes overheat and have to cool off in the chilly water.
Polar bears can see well underwater, spotting potential meals 15 feet (4.6 meters) away. They have a nictitating membrane, or third eyelid, that allows them to see underwater and protects their eyes in blowing snow.
To clean their fur, polar bears roll in the snow.
One ringed seal provides a polar bear with enough energy for 11 days.
A group of polar bears may be called a pack or a sleuth.
A polar bear can swim at a speed of up to 6 miles (8 knots) per hour.
Unlike other bears, polar bears don’t hide a supply of food to return to later.

Take the plunge
When the San Diego Zoo received its first polar bear in the summer of 1917, the bear was displayed in a cage, as was typical of zoos of that era. A gift from Ellen Browning Scripps launched construction of some of the world’s first barless enclosures, and by 1926, a new polar bear grotto was complete. The exhibit’s revolutionary design offered amazed visitors close and unobstructed views of three polar bears.

Today, our polar bears live in a wonderful tundra habitat complex: the Conrad Prebys Polar Bear Plunge. The focal point of the Plunge is, naturally, the pool. From the underwater viewing room, you can see how agile and playful these Arctic bruins really are. In fact, they’re known to swim right up to the glass to check out all the humans on display. Outdoor viewing follows the water level up to the beach area, where two large pits filled with natural substrate and mulch allow the bears to dig around or take a nap—just like they would in the wild.

At the Experience Wall, keepers open up the glass panels and interact with a polar bear through a mesh barrier as you stand just feet away. We’re thrilled to be able to offer this unique connection between humans and polar bears.

Our trio
You may have seen our polar bears in person or on our popular Polar Cam, but how well do you know our terrific trio—Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq?

Kalluk and Tatqiq, a brother and sister pair, were only a few months old when they arrived at the San Diego Zoo in March of 2001 from Alaska. Their mother had been wearing a radio collar for research purposes. When a sensor went off on her radio collar, the researchers went to check on her and her cubs. They found that she had been shot and killed, and her cubs were rescued. Since they were so young, they would not have survived without their mother and were soon transferred here, where they have lived ever since.

Chinook also came to us as an orphan, but we do not know what happened to her mother. She was already around one year old when she came to the Zoo in May 1996.

Today, Kalluk is our biggest bear; he weighs over 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) and is also the tallest of the three. When he stands with all four feet on the ground, he is eye level with you if you are 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall. But when he stands up on his hind feet, he reaches over 10 feet (3 meters)! Chinook and Tatqiq are much smaller because they are females; they each weigh a bit more than 500 pounds (230 kilograms). Chinook is a little rounder and shorter than Tatqiq. All three love to swim and play with the plastic toy balls their keepers provide.

Get the latest scoop on our bears straight from their keeper! Read the Polar Bear Blog.

Carbon footprints
At Polar Bear Plunge, guests get a chance to explore the world of the polar bear through interactive elements. Four-D models of the Arctic ice from 1989 and 2007 show what’s happening to the polar bear’s habitat, and guests can check out our large carbon graph, which shows what recorded carbon dioxide levels have been historically and compares them to where they are today.

Our hope is that by exploring the polar bear, its lifestyle, and conservation challenges through the elements of Polar Bear Plunge, Zoo visitors will become more aware of the impact of their daily choices and empowered to make changes that will benefit them and wildlife around the world.

Polar bear ecology

The polar bear is uniquely adapted to life on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean, and for millennia they have roamed the vast and pristine circumpolar Arctic relatively undisturbed by human activities. However, climate change has created a conservation crisis for this iconic species, and their persistence in the wild is jeopardized by record-breaking sea ice losses and increasing industrial-scale human activity. In areas where the sea ice melts completely, polar bears must move ashore in the summer. They may scavenge to avoid starving, or they may fast until ice forms again. In some places, these bears have learned to eat at garbage dumps. They could be injured or poisoned by trash, and it puts the bears in close contact with humans. This can be a dangerous situation for both humans and bears.

For nearly a decade, San Diego Zoo Global's researchers and our US and Canadian partners have focused on developing the best conservation strategies to boost their wild populations. Every detail matters: reproduction, denning, communication, available prey, formation of sea ice, climate change, and the impact of human activities are all evaluated.

We are helping the U.S. Geological Survey of Alaska by having one of our polar bears, Tatqiq, wear an accelerometer collar to track her movements. Measuring Tatqiq’s movements at the Zoo will provide a baseline by which to identify behaviors for bears wearing the accelerometer collars in the wild. The data gained from accelerometers on collared polar bears in the Arctic will provide U.S. Geological Survey scientists with new insights into the bears' daily behavior, movements and energy needs, and a better understanding of the effects of climate change on polar bears.

Today, it is estimated that there are 22,000 to 27,000 polar bears throughout the Arctic. Polar bears still need our help. People must continue to give these bears large, safe places to live and try to keep the environment clean and free of pesticides that could poison the bear's food. We believe an Arctic without polar bears is simply unthinkable!

Join us!
You can help us bring polar bears back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.