Polar bears (Ursus maritimus), the world’s largest terrestrial carnivores, depend more on ice than land. The author notes that “as with porridge and Goldilocks, they need ice that is not too thick and not too thin.” The beast is also known as white bear, ice bear, swimming bear, and a large variety of names used by indigenous peoples in regions around the North Pole – nanuq, tornassuk, and apitiliit, among others. Often appearing in periodical articles as “lord of the Arctic,” the polar bear is sometimes referred to as the “polarizing bear,” since some people use them to argue that humans are not a cause of climate change. Although other bears sometimes have pale coats, polar bears always have a white coat. Their size helps them tolerate cold. Fat serves as both insulation and energy storage. Their favorite foods are seals, and their efficient digestion provides for rapid weight gain. Polar bears are good swimmers but not fast enough to capture seals in water, so they do most of their hunting on ice.

Polar bears have been around for at least 400,000 years. The author traces the migrations of polar bears and their interactions with humans from the Arctic to Northern Europe, Siberia, and North America, using genetics and geological studies as well as carvings and pictures on rocks and in caves. Valued as spiritual guides by Arctic indigenous people who hunted them, in some other cultures they were presented as gifts to royal monarchs, and their skins were sometimes donated to houses of worship so that the priest “should not suffer frozen feet.” In On the Origin of Species, Darwin suggested that he could imagine the possibility of natural selection producing a race of bears with large mouths and “as monstrous as a whale.” He was ridiculed for the idea and removed it from his book. Even today, there is much to be learned about polar bear evolution.

A sampling of other items the reader will find in this book includes the following:

  • Marco Polo speaking of “white bears” in an account of his Chinese travels in 1300

  • the intelligence of the polar bear, as judged by the Inuit and the medieval Norse

  • descriptions of polar bear fur and the structure of its hairs

  • techniques used to mark polar bears for counting

  • the story of Matthew Henson, an African American associate on Robert Peary’s North Pole exploration, who wore polar bearskin clothing

  • a thought-provoking discussion of climate change and how polar bears are used both to support its reality and to illustrate ideas that climate change is a hoax

  • the reason why polar bears, among the most highly regulated animals, are considered “vulnerable”

  • Jacques Cartier’s ship encountering polar bears near the coast of Newfoundland and his crew eating one, believing it to be “as good as a two-year-old heifer”

  • interesting information on polar bear anatomy, physiology, behavior, skills, reproduction, and care of offspring

  • the story of how Danish explorer Willem Barentsz and crew ate polar bear liver, confirming the effects of vitamin A toxicity

  • the places where polar bear rugs are found – under pianos, in front of fireplaces, and under beautiful women

  • the reason Leonardo DiCaprio was featured with a polar bear cub on the cover of Vanity Fair

Polar bears are found in zoos and museums, but they also turn up in many unexpected places:

  • in Melville’s Moby Dick

  • in songs such as “Gus the Polar Bear from Central Park,” by Canadian rock group The Tragically Hip

  • as a life-size copper polar bear statue created for the 2015 Paris climate summit

  • in a Punch magazine illustration (1875) showing them as attendants to the “Queen of the Arctic”

  • as two statues on the roof of Copenhagen City Hall

  • in an 1879 illustration by Gustave Doré for Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

  • as a steel and wire sculpture in the Tower of London

  • in movies such as The Golden Compass (2007), which features Zara, a zoo-born polar bear

  • in old advertisements for Coca-Cola and Fresh and Cold Lager Beer, “direct from the North Pole”

  • as the mascot of the Toronto Maple Leafs

Packed with fascinating information, Polar Bear is an intensely researched, delightfully written, and lavishly illustrated book that should appeal to those who would like to learn more about the life and impact of this unique mammal. Appropriate for high school, college, and adult readers, Polar Bear includes a time line, a detailed list of references, a bibliography, a list of associations and websites, and an index.