Habits and Behaviors
Polar bears communicate through body language, vocalizations, and scent markings:
Head wagging from side to side: A sign that polar bears want to play. Adult bears initiate play—which is actually ritualized fighting or mock battling—by standing on their hind legs, chin lowered to their chests, with front paws hanging by their sides.
Nose-to-nose greetings: How a bear asks another bear for something, such as food. The guest bear will approach slowly, circle around a carcass, then meekly touch the feeding bear's nose.
Chuffing: A vocal response to stress, often heard when a mother bear is worried for her cubs' safety.
Scolding: Mother bears scold cubs with a low growl or soft cuff.
Rushing: When a male approaches a female with cubs, she rushes toward him with her head lowered.
Hissing, snorting, lowered head: Signifies aggression.
Loud roars or growls: Communicates anger.
Deep growls: Signifies a warning, perhaps in defense of food.
Charging forward, with head down and ears laid back: Attack mode.
Moving downwind of dominant bears: Signifies submission.
Polar bear cubs make a variety of sounds, from hums to groans, to cries when communicating with their mothers.
You can listen to some of these vocalizations below or in Chad van Gessel’s post on Decoding Polar Bear Vocalizations in the Den.
Cubs scream and cry when they’re distressed.
Cubs moan and groan when they've lost a teat or are experiencing discomfort.
Cubs make "uhs," "ums" and related sounds when they are content.
Polar bear cubs make this sound when attempting to nurse.
The sound of a cub nursing is often described as "humming.”
Yes, mother polar bears snore—an indication of a resting and relaxed mom!
Stress vocalizations include panting, heavy breathing, and chuffing.
Licking sounds are heard when a mother is grooming herself or her cubs, the sign of a relaxed state.
Bathing & Cleaning
Polar bears like to be clean and dry because matted, dirty, and wet fur is a poor insulator.
According to scientist Ian Stirling in summer, after feeding, polar bears head for open water and spend up to 15 minutes washing off, licking their paws, chests, and muzzles. They then dry themselves by shaking off excess water and rubbing their fur in the snow.
In winter, polar bears clean themselves with snow (and with water, when available). They also rub their heads in the snow, push forward on their tummies, and roll on their backs.
Polar bears are also known to groom chunks of ice from their paws to make walking more comfortable.
Mother polar bears lick their cubs to keep them clean. Cubs also lick themselves and each other.
Sleeping & Bedding
Just like humans, most polar bears sleep for seven to eight hours at a stretch—and they take naps, too.
On the ice in spring and summer, polar bears tend to sleep more during the day than at night, because seals are more active at night. But the terms day and night hold little meaning in the Arctic, where there are 24 hours of daylight during summer and 24 hours of darkness in winter.
Polar bears nap just about anywhere, any time, and especially after feeding on a seal. Napping helps them conserve energy, since their entire existence centers around hunting, eating, and conserving energy.
In winter, polar bears sleep in shallow pits they dig in the snow, putting their sides or backs to the wind.
They can sleep right through blizzards in day beds dug in the lee of a ridge. The snow piles up on top of them and provides an insulating blanket. Sometimes they stay curled up under the snow for several days until the storm passes.
In summer, polar bears curl up on the tundra or on an ice patch, sometimes using a block of ice or an outstretched paw as a pillow. Landlocked bears dig sleeping pits in the sand or in gravel ridges along the shoreline.
Watch polar bears as they travel across the sea ice to hunt seals.
Polar Bear FAQ
We answer the most frequently asked polar bear questions.