A polar bear rests on the snow

© Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

7/27/2020 1:38:43 PM

Polar Bear Questions: Do Polar Bears Cry?

By Dr. Thea Bechshoft

Q: I recently received this interesting query from Jen: “Question from a dinner party this weekend: Do polar bears cry? Thanks, PBQ, for this great series!”

A: Thank you for the kind words, Jen, as well as the great question! What I love most about PBQ are unexpected questions like this one.

Before I answer, let’s start with a little background information: Tear production plays an important part in keeping eyes healthy; tears prevent the eyes from drying out and also help protect the eyes against foreign particles such as dust. Furthermore, tear fluids have anti-bacterial properties and contain nutrients needed by the eye’s cornea.

Because tear fluid is so important for healthy eyes, most animals (vertebrates) have tear ducts and are capable of producing this liquid. The tears associated with crying (regardless of the reason) are produced when there is a surplus production and thus an overflow of this tear fluid. However, despite most animals being able to produce tear fluid, the majority of scientists agree that humans are the only animals that produce tears for emotional reasons (being sad, angry, happy, etc.).

There is no doubt that at least some animal species mourn their dead, in addition to which there is anecdotal evidence of tears of sorrow in, for example, elephants and cats. Still, while countless animals are able to produce tears in connection with an irritation of the eye, there is no actual evidence or scientific publications available on this topic that I know of. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that it is virtually impossible for humans to tell if animal tears are the result of emotions or caused by some sort of eye irritation.

So, all that said, let’s get back to your question! Polar bears are certainly capable of producing tear fluids. In fact, some speculate that they may even have special substances in their tear fluid that helps protect their eyes against snow blindness. However, I have never seen or heard any stories about them actually shedding tears.

This makes good biological sense for a number of reasons, especially if we assume that (emotional) tears primarily exist as a way of conveying to others how you feel:

1) Polar bears are mostly solitary animals. There would be no other bear around to observe and react to the tears of another bear.

2) Polar bears are olfactory animals. They rely on their sense of smell to a much higher degree than their sense of vision.

3) Drinking water (used to produce tears) is a precious commodity for polar bears living out on the sea ice.

4) Polar bears are often in below-freezing temperatures. Only rarely would tears roll down the bear’s cheek, but rather—if produced in excess—they would form ice balls just below the bear’s eye, which I imagine would be rather uncomfortable.

In summary: yes, polar bears can probably produce tears. However, until the contrary is proved, I personally doubt that they would cry for any other reason than an eye infection or something similar.

Dr. Thea Bechshoft is a staff scientist for Polar Bears International based in Aarhaus, Denmark. She is the author of the popular Polar Bear Questions page on Facebook, republished here with permission.

 

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