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Name & Evolution

A polar bear by any other name would be the same.

Ursus maritimus, Thalarctos, sea bear, ice bear, Nanuq, isbjorn, white bear, beliy medved, lord of the Arctic, old man in the fur cloak, and white sea deer.

These are just some of the ways people around the world identify polar bears.

Scientific Classification

Ursus maritimus is the polar bear's scientific name. It means sea bear.

Commander C.J. Phipps, author of A Voyage Towards the North Pole, used it for the first time in 1774. It refers to the animal's close association with the Arctic's chilly waters and its sea ice.

Later, the scientific name Thalarctos was accepted. It is a combination of the Greek, thalasso, meaning sea, and arctos, meaning bear of the north.

In 1971, polar bear scientists returned to the bear's original scientific name, Ursus maritimus.

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Languages & Cultures

Norse poets (medieval Scandinavia)

White Sea Deer, The Seal's Dread, The Rider of Icebergs, The Whale's Bane, and The Sailor of the Floe.

They praised polar bears for having the strength of 12 men and the wit of 11.

Sami or Lapp (indigenous people from northern Europe)

God's Dog or Old Man in the Fur Cloak.

They refuse to say “polar bear” for fear of offending him or her.


Nanuk or Pihoqahiak

An animal worthy of great respect. The ever-wandering one.

The Ket (Siberian tribe)


Meaning grandfather. A sign of respect and awe.


Beliy Medved

The white bear.

Norway & Denmark


The ice bear.

Eastern Greenland


The master of helping spirits.

19th Century Whalers

The Farmer

Because of their slow, pigeon-toed gait.

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The Evolution of the Polar Bear

From brown bear to Arctic wonder

Estimates of when polar bears started splitting from brown bears continue to change as geneticists learn more about the polar bear's genome.

Recent findings suggest that polar bears evolved from a common ancestor of the brown bear between 350,000-6 million
 years ago.

After beginning to branch off, the polar bear's ancestors went through 
a series of evolutionary changes in order to survive in the Arctic.

How have they adapted?

As time went on and the bears moved North, they became superbly adapted to a life of hunting seals and surviving extreme cold.

From top to bottom, their bodies are perfectly coordinated with the seasonal shifts in the Arctic. Their fur covers a thick layer of fat, their ears and tails are small to limit heat loss, and their paws allow them to tread on thin ice. To learn more about polar bear characteristics, visit here. One of the most remarkable adaptations is their ability to thrive on a fat-rich diet without heart damage.

Interestingly, the research shows that after brown bears and polar bears separated, there were periods when they came into contact again, particularly with polar bear genes flowing into grizzlies.

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How does the polar bear's evolution fit into the current threat of Arctic warming and the loss of their sea ice habitat?

All of these recent studies are interesting in terms of understanding how polar bears got to where they are today. But none alter the risks polar bears face if we allow the climate to continue to warm at its current rate.

Regardless of what polar bears may have been like during earlier warm periods in the past 6 million years, the current Arctic warming will eventually exceed anything modern polar bears and their ancestors have experienced, unless we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Bear Tracker

Watch polar bears as they travel across the sea ice to hunt seals.

Check out Bear Tracker

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Polar Bear FAQ

We answer the most frequently asked polar bear questions.

Go to FAQ

Climate Change

A threat to polar bears and the sea ice they depend on.

Learn How

© Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com