Special Report

They’re Not Really White and 19 Other Fascinating Facts About Polar Bears

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They sleep a lot.

Polar bears might not settle down for long winter naps like other bear species, but they get plenty of shuteye. Besides sleeping for seven to eight hours each night, they often nap during the day, especially after a meal or a swim or if the weather is too hot or too cold.

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They can live longer in captivity than in the wild.

Though polar bears can live to the age of about 30 in the wild — 32 is the record — only a small percentage of them make it past 18 years. They tend to do better in captivity, however: The oldest known polar bear in a zoo made it to 45.

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Their meat is said to taste good.

Native peoples in areas where polar bears live have traditionally hunted — and eaten — them. (They abide by a quota system, limiting the number of animals they can hunt.) Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft chief technology officer and prolific inventor turned cookbook author, sampled braised polar bear meat prepared by a local on a trip to Greenland and noted that “it was coarse textured meat, probably from the leg, and…it was delicious.”

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Their liver is toxic.

As with seals and walruses, the livers of polar bears contain an exceedingly high dose of Vitamin A. A healthy adult can tolerate 10,000 units of the vitamin; a pound of polar bear liver contains as much as nine million units — so even a small portion can be toxic. Excessive consumption of the vitamin affects the central nervous system, and can cause liver problems, blurred vision, and peeling skin, among other issues, and sometimes even death.

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They can swim as fast as Michael Phelps.

Polar bears are very good swimmers, able to achieve a speed of about six miles per hour. Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps matched that speed in the 2016 Summer Games, in the 200-meter individual medley. The difference is that polar bears can maintain their speed over long distances. They can cover more than 60 miles at a time in icy water, and a female polar bear was once tracked swimming 400 miles in one go in the Bering Sea, then resting for a few hours before continuing on for another 1,100 miles.

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