The Polar Bear has adapted incredibly well to be able to survive in its harsh environment. There are several ways in which it has been able to do this, and the fact that their paws are so big and dextrous is just one adaptation. When visiting Polar bear habitat on specialised wildlife tours, it is interesting to note just how much where an animal lives can affect its physical evolution.
Paws for Thought
Polar Bears have extremely large feet, which can grow up to 12 inches wide. This is so their colossal weight can be spread more evenly over the deep snow and thin ice. Their feet are also very furry, which helps them keep warm. The pads on their feet are rough to the touch, making for better traction on the ice that makes up the majority of the surface in the frozen Polar Bear habitat.
Their claws are short, sharp, thick and curved, which makes it easier for them to grip onto the ice or hang on to their often-slippery prey. You couldn’t get more different from human feet but, interestingly, their gait is very similar to ours. Their bone anatomy doesn’t differ from ours too much either and, in fact, excavated human bones have often been confused with those of bears.
Because Polar Bears are predatory animals, you might expect them walk on their toes rather than being so flat-footed. But their large plantigrade feet are perfect for supporting their weight, for climbing, and for helping them stand upright to seek out prey, catch a smell in the wind, and fight. Large, flat feet don’t mean that they are slow, though. In short bursts they can run up to 30 miles an hour, which is much faster than the average human. They wander their territory extensively, and sometimes up to 20 miles of bear habitat is covered per day, for several days in a row. Walking up to 700 miles a year, their home ranges are huge and can stretch for over 135,000 square miles.
Big paws have other advantages too, and they make great flippers in the water. Polar Bear habitat doesn’t just consist of ice fields, it also includes many miles of ocean as well. They are excellent swimmers and spend a lot of time in the water. Their front paws are used for propulsion and the hind legs are for steering.
Polar Bears have evolved in an incredibly efficient way, in order to make their challenging Arctic life as easy as possible. This demanding environment has meant that their coat, body, paws and claws have uniquely developed over time to ensure their survival in this harsh corner of the planet.