Stories tagged polar bears


That’s the question I started asking last week after revisiting Giacomo Beltrami’s narrative, "A Pilgrimage in Europe and America V2: Leading to the Discovery of the Sources of the Mississippi and Bloody River", where he mentions “white bears” in Northern Minnesota. Surely he’s not referencing polar bears. Perhaps albino black bears?

Here’s what Beltrami had to say about these mysterious “white bears”:
“The white bear is the only wild beast of these regions that is dangerous."
"I have in my possession a magnificent skin of a yellow bear…”
"I then carefully put my gun in order, to be able to defend myself against the attack of white bears, which abound near the Red River."

I contacted two bear experts. David Mather, National Register Archaeologist at the Minnesota Historical Society, thinks Beltrami is referring to grizzly bears, since historically grizzlies were called “white or yellow bears” because of the light colored tips of the fur, and, “the fear factor makes me think that he’s referring to grizzlies.”

Andrew Derocher, professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta and a polar bear specialist said, “Minnesota seems a long way south and inland for polar bears. There is some evidence for polar bears to have been as far south as Maine but this would likely have been rare and coastal.”

Light colored grizzly beary
Light colored grizzly bearyCourtesy

The shades and colors of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis ) fur are as varied as human hair, ranging from dark brown to white. In fact, white grizzlies (not albinos) are not uncommon in portions of Alberta and Montana, and in south-central British Columbia.

A simultaneous literature review led me to this interesting tidbit from the Lewis and Clark Journals:

“Goodrich and Willard visited the indian [sic] Village this morning and returned in the evening Willard brought with him the dressed Skin of a bear which he had purchased for me. this Skin was of a uniform pale redish[sic] brown colour, the indians[sic] inform us that it was not the Hoh-host or white bear, that it was the Yâck-kâh this distinction of the Indians induced us to make further enquiry relative to their oppinions [sic] of the defferent [sic] Species of bear in this country. We produced the Several Skins of the bear which our hunters had killed at this place and one very nearly white which Capt Lewis had purchased. the White, the deep and pale red grizzle, the dark brown grizzle, and all those that had the extremities of the hair of a White or frosty Colour without reguard [sic] to the Colour of the ground of the poil, [sic] they designated Hoh-host and assured us that they were the Same with the White bear, that they associated together, were very vicisious, [sic] never climb the trees, and had much longer nails than the others."

Indigenous words referenced in Lewis and Clark’s journals include “Matocha” (Mato means grey bear) and “hoh-host”. At this point, I needed a Dakota linguistic specialist, so I contacted Leonard Wabasha, Director of Cultural Resources for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Tribe to get his opinion. Leonard thinks Lewis and Clark might have misinterpreted the Dakota speakers, who,
“may have been trying to say that the bears had a smoky color/tint or "Hota" which is also part of the word for sage (peji-hota) although considered to represent the color grey/gray it is visually nearly white.”

So, it appears for the Beltrami text, “white bears” are grizzlies. During his three months in Minnesota in 1823, Beltrami’s main method for staying warm was the “white bear robe” he procured from an Ojibwe person. To date, there aren’t any indications the bear robe survived in the Beltrami Museum collections here in Italy, but I’ll keep searching.

More on White Bears
White Bear Lake, MN
Leonard Wabasha, David Mather and I all decided this linguistic information gives a whole new interpretation to White Bear Lake, MN, a town that is associated with the legend of star-crossed Ojibwe and Dakota lovers being attacked by a “white bear”. The town’s logo is—you guessed it— a polar bear.

White black bears
There is a rare white color phase of the American black bear. John Tanner reports seeing one on the Canadian/Minnesota border in the early 19th century. The Kermode bear, or “Spirit Bear” is a white bear and a sub-species to the American Black Bear. and

I saw this last night on 60 Minutes, a reply of an earlier aired story. It's long, 13 minutes, but has incredible footage of the everyday world of polar bears. The best stuff, of course, is at the end.

I was searching YouTube for some other museum stuff when I came upon this video of a wild deer that jumped into a polar bear enclosure at a Pittsburgh Zoo. It's security camera video, not the clearest, but pretty interesting nonetheless.


An early Hawaii-area triviashipman: Hopefully this triviashipman will come to a better end. I've tried to be courteous to the locals, at least.
An early Hawaii-area triviashipman: Hopefully this triviashipman will come to a better end. I've tried to be courteous to the locals, at least.Courtesy Artmechanic
The Puddleduck has crossed the Pacific! They said it couldn’t be done. But they also said that double-stuff Oreos would fail, and they said that Wham! would never play in China, and they said that Dances With Wolves could never win an Academy Award.

So here we are, on the northern tip of Polynesia, getting ready to answer some random questions.

How did I get random questions? Pff. Duh. I took them with me, of course. I never go anywhere without a few extra randoms, even if it means leaving my anti-psychotics out of my backpack for the extra space.

Man the guns, Buzzketeers! Random questions to port! Let us rake them to Swiss cheese, and send them to Davey Jones. (As answers.)

Elise asks: Are polar bears really bears?

Heck yeahs, Elise, polar bears is bears alright. The polar bear belongs to the family ursidae, just like all other bears. It is a pretty unique bear, though, so I can see how the confusion might arise. Polar bears, along with Kodiak bears (they’re big brown bears), are the largest meat-eating land animals. They’re also sometimes considered to be “marine mammals.” When you think about other marine mammals, like whales, seals, and dolphins, that might sound pretty weird, because bears seem pretty different from all of them. Polar bears, however, are excellent swimmers, and they spend months every year living on sea-ice, far away from land.

But, yeah. Polar bears are indeed bears.

Anonymous asks: Do they still say, “Ontology recapitulates phylogeny”?

Swab! Load! Ram! Spark the touchhole!
Um, no, they don’t. Sometimes they say, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” but for the most part nobody says stuff like that. I mean… are you serious? You could have asked about naked mole rats, and this is what you came up with? Shhh… I think I hear your old professor calling. She says that class has been really quiet since you left. Better go fix that.

Anonymous 2 asks: Why does poop smell?

Blam! Direct hit! I think we decapitated someone with that!
See? This is what I’m talking about! Sure, this is a joke question… but so was the last one, and at least this is an answer we can take to the bank. Why, when we eat delicious smelling foods, does poop smell so… bad?

It’s because after we eat food, as we digest it, bacteria inside our bodies help break that food down into other materials we can use for energy, or to build our bodies. But when bacteria do this, they also produce chemicals that don’t smell great. Some of them smell really bad! A lot of the worst smelling chemicals—the ones that make farts so gross too—contain the element sulfur, like the gas hydrogen sulfide, or the chemicals indole and skatole. Skatole smells so bad that its name comes from the Greek word for poop: “skato.” The food we eat can also change the smell of out poop. Undigested spices can show up in the odor, and sometimes eating lots of meat can make it smell worse too.

Lots of animals don’t really mind the smell of poop, but people probably think its bad because having too much contact with poop can make us sick (it can have some pretty bad germs). When we smell that smell, we know it’s something we should probably avoid for our own health.

Annika (with the help of a parent) asks: Why do blue leaves not grow?

Good question, Annika. We have blue flowers sometimes, but leaves are usually green. Why? We have to go a couple steps back to get a good answer, I think.

Plants grow with the help of sunlight. They absorb air (or carbon dioxide from the air) and use the energy in sunlight to turn that air into more plant material. “Photosynthesis” is the fancy word for this. Plants use a green chemical called Chlorophyll, and that gives plants their green color. When white sunlight (remember, white light is made up of all colors of light) hits those leaves, the leaves reflect green light back to our eyes, but they absorb all the other colors of light, especially red and blue light. The energy in that light can then be used to help the plant grow.

Oh, man, those questions have been mutilated! I’ve got a thirst for blood now. Let’s sail on, and see which questions are foolish enough to fall into the range of our science cannons. So, until next time…

PS—It’s still Easter in Hawaii right now, by the way, so Happy Easter. (If that’s your thing.) I’m afraid JGordon is alone this Easter, but don’t get too concerned. I’ve got plans. I’m going to spin around until I almost throw up, and then I’m going to take a basket of eggs and scatter them wherever I happen to stagger. When I get my equilibrium back, I’ll go try to find the eggs. It shouldn’t be so hard—the eggs will certainly be uncooked, and the whole thing will take place in an empty parking lot.


A bear of constant sorrow: The expression on his face speaks volumes.
A bear of constant sorrow: The expression on his face speaks volumes.Courtesy Sketchzilla
Buzzketeer General Liza put me on to this story last week, and I’m glad she did. Folks should know the plight of the polar bear.

So, you know those images of polar bears standing on the edge of ice sheets, looking sad because the ice is shrinking, and they need that ice to, you know, stay alive? You know what I’m talking about.

Well… it turns out that shrinking ice may be the least of their worries.

How do I put this? There’s trouble down south in the far north? A great big bear has a… Oh, forget it. Polar bears’ genitals are shrinking.

Oh, this is bleak. Two genital-based posts in a row? I don’t like it any more than you do, and I know you don’t like it. But we’re being beaten down and overwhelmed by genitals in the news, and we can’t ignore the news.

So, yes, after millennia of fearlessly swimming in an ocean of ice water, the mighty polar bear is finally suffering from shrinkage. But this isn’t one of the many problems that global warming can solve—this little situation is being caused by pollution, not cold water.

Y’all know about bioaccumulation and biomagnification? Toxic compounds can be found at very low concentrations in the environment, but still end up at dangerously high levels in certain plants and animals. This is caused by organisms taking in toxins faster than they can get rid of them, and by animals eating lots of other animals or plants that already have toxins in them. That’s what’s happening in the arctic. Tiny organisms are absorbing certain organic pollutants from the environment, and those organisms are getting eaten by tiny fish, and those tiny fish are getting eaten by bigger fish, and so on until big fish, with lots of the pollutants stored up in their bodies get eaten by an animal that doesn’t often get eaten by anything else, animals like killer whales, arctic foxes, or polar bears.

Biologists studied preserved polar bear genitals (penises, testicles, and ovaries) collected between 1999 and 2002, and found that individual bears with higher concentrations of these organic pollutants (called “organohalogens”) consistently had smaller bits and pieces. The organohalogens act like hormones in the bears, and we all know the amazing things hormones can do.

Now we must ask ourselves that age old question: “What does this mean for the bears?” Well, it seems that bears can’t rely on personality alone for successful mating. Polar bears don’t reproduce that often in the first place, and shrinking reproductive organs (in both boy-bears and lady-bears) is only going to make things trickier. And then there’s that whole ice-shrinking thing, which has probably taken a back seat in the minds of young bears everywhere.

In related news, a couple of polar bears at a Japanese zoo were having trouble conceiving until their handlers finally realized that they were both female. (I imagine that they would still have trouble conceiving, but I think the pressure is off now.) Apparently telling male and female bears apart is difficult as it is.

Visitors at a Tokyo zoo are rubbing their eyes in wonder as they view green polar bears. Here's a link to the full story and a photo. An overgrowth of algea in their pen caused their unique coloration, not their youthful rebelious nature of changing their fur color to make their parents upset.

It took 49 days for two recent Chaska High School graduates to canoe all the way from Chaska up the Minnesota River, down the Red River, across Lake Winnipeg and finally to Hudson Bay. You can get all the details here at their website/blog. It's an incredible adventure.


OMG! So cute!!!: Let's see how cute this is in a couple years.
OMG! So cute!!!: Let's see how cute this is in a couple years.Courtesy indio
Remember little Knut? The baby polar bear rejected by his mother, and hand-reared by the Berlin Zoo? It was a controversial move by the zoo—many thought that it would have been better to let nature run its course (i.e., let little Knut bite it)—but it paid off in massive cuteness dividends. The world got to watch little Knut frolic through his darling childhood, and then tumble into his frightening adolescence. Now Knut is acting like a perfectly normal adult bear, which it turns out is really upsetting for people.

Knut, the Britney Spears of the Berlin Zoo, has been caught…Murdering fish!

It seems that Knut has been catching live carp out of his moat (carp are really where it’s at these days), and killing them in front of visitors. Critics say that the fish should never have been put in the enclosure in the first place, but the zoo has pointed out that they were only there to eat algae in the moat. Whatever the reason, the carp were “senselessly murdered,” as one German news website reported the story. It’s not an easy life, Knut, and the fact that you’ve now got a younger, cuter, less screwed up cub out there, gunning for your spotlight won’t make it any easier.

That’s right, there’s a new fluffy little pile of cute out there now, making Knut look more and more like a hideous, fishy-smelling monster every day (Britney Spears can totally sympathize). Last week the Nuremberg Zoo debuted little Flocke, a loveable, huggable little puffball, who will never grow into one of the world’s largest predators, and would certainly never do anything as awful as fish murder.

Here’s a video of little Flocke, doing what she does best.

There's been a change of plans for the temporary relocation of Como Zoo's polar bears. This link gives the full details of where they'll spend the next couple years while their pen gets an extreme makeover. We reported here last month that they'd be going to Buffalo, but that just didn't work out. You know how polar bears can be.


Fighting for survival?: Delays by the Department of Interior on putting polar bears on the endangered list have made some congressional leaders upset. What do you think about this?
Fighting for survival?: Delays by the Department of Interior on putting polar bears on the endangered list have made some congressional leaders upset. What do you think about this?Courtesy wikipedia
Congressional environmentalists were getting cranky last week as deadlines are coming and going on giving polar bears endangered species protection. At the same time, deadlines are coming to open up some prime polar bear locations to oil exploration.

The Chukchi Sea, home to about a fifth of the world’s polar bears, could be opened to oil and natural gas expeditions next week through the action of one Interior Department division.

Congressional environmentalists, who want to see polar bears be added to the endangered list, claim they were promised that action would happen earlier this month. Now, they claim, the delay is being made to keep the Chukchi open to energy discoveries.

Proponents of global climate change say that melting ice caps in the Arctic are threatening the polar bear population. One study completed this fall predicts that up to two thirds of the polar bear population could be gone by the middle of this century if current warming trends continue.

Interior officials testifying at Congress yesterday said that the delay on adding polar bears to the endangered list is due to a desire to assure that Congress and the public will understand the decision when it is made public.

What do you think of all of this? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.