Living on the ice or tundra, there are no trees to climb or ready escape routes. Polar bears must be confident in their ability to identify potential threats. Interpreting their surroundings and bear behaviour will mean the difference between confrontation or companionship in bear season, and likely be the difference in terms of survival out on the ice.
Polar bears have come to rely on body language as their primary means of communication. With so many bears in a relatively small area, ‘bear season’ is an excellent opportunity to observe their complex interactions. Body size is often used to establish dominance. Bears will often ‘broadside’, walking at almost a right
angle to their opponent. Two bears circle each other, assessing the situation and their opponent.
A lowered head is, also, a common behaviour. It can indicate uncertainty, stress or aggression. A bear often stands with a lowered head and all four feet close together while assessing new situations.
Uncertainty is often accompanied by swaying either their head or their whole body back and forth. Stress will often induce a licking motion, with bears sticking out their black tongue possibly to aid in identifying a new scent. Aggression is signified by an extended upper lip and an exhalation of breath or a hissing sound.
Although generally silent, bears may accompany the nuances of body language with vocalizations. A low growl can signify a warning to other bears, often used when food is involved. Despite this warning, food may be shared between bears, given the proper etiquette and conditions. On the other hand, trying to share someone else’s food is a good way for a young bear to get in big trouble. A loud roar displays outright anger and often signals an immediate charge.
With such an adaptable and intelligent animal, it is amazing to watch how uncertainty changes to comfort to aggression and back in a very short time span.
The Nose Knows
Smell is their strongest sense. At least twenty times more sensitive than human’s, it is usually their first indicator of a pending encounter. This sense, however, is highly dependent on weather conditions and wind direction. For this reason, bears stretch their long necks and contort their noses to ‘read’ the wind. When conditions are right, you can see bears take notice of other bears that only appear as tiny specks on the ice.
Teaching and Learning Behaviours
Mothers with cubs again present some of the most interesting moments in bear season. She is in almost constant communication with her cubs whether they are listening or not.
Presented by an uncertain situation or threatening bear, she often keeps her cubs behind her, leaving them sitting together until she has assessed the potential danger. Ever alert, she not only uses body language but may also smack her lips, huff and even growl at her cubs. Often, one sound from her and her otherwise carefree cubs come running to her side. Some mothers are very disciplined, keeping a ‘tight leash’ on their cubs, others let their young ones roam, sometimes even a little too far…
The cubs, for their part, watch their mother intently, often mimicking her behaviours and her movements. During ‘bear season’, cubs of older, confident bears, sometimes even team up to drive away other bears. With their front lip extended, they have been seen charging at bears well over 200kg (400lbs) heavier. Of course, it does not hurt that mom is standing right behind her cubs.
While females stay away from males as a general rule, it is a rare male that will attack a mother defending her cubs. Most know, that it is a battle that they will not likely leave unscarred. However, with occasional cases of cannibalization recorded amongst bears, females usually choose discretion over valour.
Cubs will stay with their mother for two or three years learning how to hunt and how to survive. These first years are critical to these bears’ life path. The female’s actions and patterns will impact her cubs and their behaviours for much of their life.
Studies have shown that cubs encountered near Churchill or at the former garbage dump site had a high percentage of returning in later life to become problem bears. Since females prefer to return to familiar areas, young females were more likely to return and bring successive generations to the site.