Polar bears are one of the world’s largest carnivores; male polar bears can weigh up to 900 kg (approx. 2,000 lbs) and grow to nearly 3 meters (approx 10 ft.) in length, however the average size of a male polar bear is 400-600 kg (approximately 800 – 1300 lbs), with females approximately half the size of males. Polar bears are uniquely adapted to the north and freezing temperatures. Their coats, which range in color from white to creamy yellow and even light brown, are thick and the hairs are designed to conserve heat. In addition, the skin underneath their coats is black which absorbs the suns' rays. Their feet, which are exceptionally large, are designed to act as oars when swimming and as snowshoes when walking on thin ice. Their well-insulated bodies do not make for exceptional athletic ability. The polar bear’s gait is slow and lumbering only walking approximately 5-6 km per hour. While they do not like to run for long periods because they overheat quickly, young bears can run as far as 2km (1.25 miles).
Polar bears live mainly in Arctic seas on offshore pack ice and along coasts and islands. They prefer to live on the pack ice all year round following the ice as it moves north in the summer. Churchill hosts the southern most population of polar bears in the world. They thrive in the rugged environment of the Hudson Bay Coastline but the bears in Churchill do not follow the pack ice north as it retreats.They spend their summers on the land and live off the body fat stored during the winter. As winter approaches in Churchill and temperatures drop below freezing, the bears lumber across the tundra to reach Hudson’s Bay and resume life on the sea and pack ice. This journey back to the sea provides a unique opportunity for polar bear observation.
Polar bears have adapted to the uncertainties of sufficient food sources in the severe climate of the North. These animals have the ability to slow down their metabolism after not eating for 7-10 days. Unlike other bears who can only hibernate in the fall, polar bears can adapt any time of the year.
Pregnant female bears who come off the ice before the Bay melts in the spring spend the next eight months on land in their dens where they give birth and nurse their cubs. The mothers and cubs don’t migrate back to the pack ice in October and November with the rest of the population. Instead the mothers nurse the cubs to 10-15 kgs (22-33 lbs) and then they all return to the pack ice in the Bay in about March. Male and female polar bears mature at around the age of 5 years and will mate and produce cubs upon maturity. Cubs stay with their mother until they are approximately three years old, so female polar bears will, at most, produce a litter approximately every three years. Mating occurs in April and May, but the fertilized egg does not implant in the uterus until September or October. At this time, females will search for a denning area. One of the three largest polar bear maternity denning areas worldwide is located near Churchill, Manitoba; the other two are located in Russia and Norway.
Polar bears use a low growl to warn off other bears, hiss and snort to show aggression and loud roars and growls to communicate their displeasure. When stressed, polar bears will emit a “chuffing” sound. Mother polar bears discipline their cubs with a low growl and a soft cuff.
Polar bears use their sense of smell to detect seal breathing holes. They can detect holes that are covered by layers of ice and snow 90cm (approx. 3 feet) thick and up to a kilometer (approx. 2/3 mile) away.
Polar bears are marine mammals because they depend on a marine environment for their existence and they are excellent swimmers. Their main source of food is seals but they will occasionally hunt walruses, belugas and narwhals.
The Polar Bears of Churchill are quite remarkable. Their arrival each year attracts tourists and scientists alike. Since recorded history in Churchill there have been Polar Bears. Jens Munk was the first known European to visit Churchill in 1619 and reported the killing of a Polar Bear there.
The Hudson’s Bay Company sent English Traders to Churchill in1669 and the trade in Polar Bear hides began. In 1930, the Province of Manitoba passed legislation protecting the maternity dens of all fur-bearing animals. In 1954, new legislation was passed making it illegal for non-aboriginals to hunt polar bears and making it illegal for anyone to trade or barter polar bear hides.
Other Wildlife to see in Churchill
Polar bears are not the only wildlife you will see in the Churchill area, along the coastline of Hudson’s Bay. Visitors may see:
Arctic Fox – the arctic fox is the smallest kind in Canada. Their fur changes color depending on the season; in winter, their coats are thick and white or pale bluish-grey and in the summer, they turn a dark brown or darker bluish-grey and their fur thins out in preparation for the summer heat. The arctic fox lives in all the lands in the circumpolar Arctic are able to quickly adapt to their environment making them well suited to the severe temperatures of the North.
Arctic Hare – the arctic hare is the largest hare in North America, they live in Northern Canada, mostly above the tree line. The hare adapts to its environment much the same way as the arctic fox – grayish brown fur in summer and white fur in winter, this helps the hare camouflage itself. In some of the most Northerly regions of their range, the hares are white all the time. The hare eats mostly woody plants and has long claws and longer incisors to allow them to dig in packed snow and pull plants out of rocky crevices. Amazingly, the arctic hare can hop on their hind legs at speeds of up to 48 km/hr (approx. 30 mph).
Caribou – the caribou is a member of the deer family, but unlike most deer family members, the caribou males and females both carry antlers. The caribou is well adapted to life in the north with a short stocky body that conserves heat, long legs to help it move through the snow and a long dense winter coat for warmth. In addition, the caribou has large concave hooves that splay widely to support the animal in snow or muskeg.
Snowy Owl – the majestic snowy owl is one of the heaviest North American owls, standing nearly one and half feet tall with a wingspan of almost 1.5 meters (5 ft.). Female snowy owls are typically heavier and darker than the male owls. The males are almost pure white all year round, but the female’s white feathers are barred with dark brown. The owls have a dense layer of down underneath their feathers to insulate their bodies and protect them from the severe cold of their northern habitat. The owls have powerful feet with curved claws with which they can easily subdue their prey. The snowy owl unlike other owls, is not nocturnal. This adaptation is due to the continuous daylight in the Arctic Circle.
Wolves – Wolf populations are common in Canada, particularly in the north, but sightings of wolves are rare. Typically in the north, the wolf appears white at a distance but up close, their fur is often grey, black or reddish. The wolf has a highly organized social structure with a dominant male and female and the wolf pack does everything together. Howling - that most surreal of sounds in the wilderness – is a means of communication for wolves with members of their pack, their young and as a warning to other packs to stay away from their territory. The wolf is a greatly misunderstood animal; while wolves feed on deer, moose, elk, bison and muskox, there are no records of these animals killing humans in Canada or the United States. In the Arctic, wolves can live in peace without the threat of being hunted or trapped and as a result, will allow people to live near them.