29 Jul 2022 | Arctic Animals

When we think of the snowy Arctic, we envision the mighty polar bear marching across their domain. This iconic white bear is called “wapusk” in the Cree language and “nanook” in Inuktitut.

The polar bear doesn’t have white fur and their skin is actually quite dark, so, why do we think of it as the white bear of the north?

Join us as we explore the reasons that polar bears appear to be white when there is nothing white about them!


A Polar Bear’s “White” Fur

When you live in a land that is often freezing cold you are going to want to have some thick fur to keep you warm. But it is a polar bear’s skin that is black so it can absorb and hold the sun’s heat.

Their fur acts as a regulator for polar bears and is better designed to keep the animal cool rather than warm. While we think of the Arctic as a cold place, due to the long periods of sunlight during the summer, the north can be quite warm.

Polar bears have two layers of fair to keep them insulated. Their outer hair is long guard hairs and their inner hair is a thick undercoat of shorter hair. These hairs are hollow and transparent, so they do not have any colour at all.

The hollow nature allows UV light to reach the skin and keep them warm, but it also bends and refract the light in a way that stops the powerful UV light from overheating the bear.

The reason they appear white is that when light moves at fast speeds it looks white because it is all the colours of the spectrum combined. The hollow and transparent hair allows the light to continue at a fast speed, so the hair give off the appearance of being white.

The polar bear also gives off a luminescence from the light bouncing around inside the hair. The hollow core is filled with air there are tiny bumps that cause the light to scatter. This build-up of trapped energy causes this emission of more white light called luminescence.

This remarkable feat of evolution allows a bear with dark skin to appear white so that it can blend into the Arctic’s snowy canopy.

This bumpy hollow hair is the reason that polar bears can look yellowish when they live in warmer habitats or zoos. The bumps and salt particles that help scatter the light can collect algae and oils that give the fur a yellowish tinge. To counter this polar bears shed their fur through the fall. This way they will lose the fur that’s covered in algae and will have a fresh coat of transparent hair in the winter the light can warm their skin.


See Polar Bears In Person

The best way to see a polar bear with the “whitest” fur is to see them in the Arctic. Their fresh coats look ironically white against their black noses as they march past. Seeing a polar bear in their natural habitat is one of the most highly sought Bucket List activities and we have a number of unforgettable trips you can explore now.


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Are you still curious about the many wonders of the Arctic or looking for more interesting content then explore more blogs here!

By: Mathew Whitelaw