Close-up of a polar bear's fur.

© Simon Gee/Polar Bears International

6/17/2019 5:19:26 PM

Polar Bear Questions: What Do Polar Bears Smell Like?

By Dr. Thea Bechshoft

We’re back with our polar bear questions series, this time with a question from Jor-El: “What do polar bears smell like?”

A: Jor-El, what a brilliant question! I wondered the same thing myself for years and so, the first time I was close to a sedated polar bear, I immediately buried my face in its fur to take a good whiff.

Unlike dogs, cats, horses, or sheep, the polar bear's scent is incredibly subtle. If I were to compare it to anything (and I’ve given this quite a bit of thought), it would be …hmm ... imagine you’ve been on a long walk along the ocean on a really windy day. The smell of your clean, non-perfumed, windblown hair when you come back inside is the closest I can come to describing the way a polar bear smells, believe it or not.

There are a number of reasons why polar bears don’t have a strong scent, but primarily:

  • Most polar bears spend their entire lives on the sea ice, a very neutral-smelling environment (water, ice, and snow).
  • Polar bears don’t have territories to defend like most other carnivores. Hence, they don’t need to scent-mark a particular area.They don’t have a need to have a strong odor themselves and don’t roll in smelly things like dogs do. (There is an exception, though: Polar bear paws leave a scented print on the sea ice with each step they take, creating trails that provide information on their sex and breeding receptiveness. These trails help polar bears find mates in the vastness of the Arctic during the breeding season.)

That said, a wet polar bear will likely have a slightly more noticeable smell than a dry bear, and a polar bear that’s in the middle of eating a seal will smell strongly of the prey (fat and blood). Similarly, a bear that is forced to spend its summer on land instead of on the sea ice (as, for example, the bears in Hudson Bay, Canada) may smell somewhat of wet peat, berries, or fermented algae. I also imagine that a polar bear with an upset stomach or an adult female who has spent the past three months in the den with her newborn cub may well have a somewhat stronger smell.

If you want to read more related to this topic, have a look at these links: on the polar bear’s sense of smell, on their nose and skull, and on the two types of hair that make up their fur.

Dr. Thea Bechshoft is a polar bear scientist based in Aarhus, Denmark, and part of the Polar Bears International team. She is the author of the popular Polar Bear Questions page on Facebook, republished here with permission.

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