Quirks & Quarks

Polar Bear's Foot Fetish

Scent deposited on snow and ice by their feet help male and female polar bears find each other.
Polar bear and cubs near Churchill, Manitoba.
It has always mystified polar bear researchers how males and females are able to locate each other, in order to mate. After all, they are solitary animals and their range is usually many thousands of kilometres. Polar bears have been observed smelling - and sometimes following - the paw prints of other bears in the ice and snow, but it was not clear what information they were getting until recently. Dr. Megan Owen, from The Institute for Conservation Research at the San Diego Zoo, presented paw swabs from wild male and female polar bears in Alaska to those in zoos in California. In the experiment, it was determined that males can tell females from other males, while females displayed more interest in males, especially during the breeding season. The composition of the scent, how the bears emit it and the effect of diminishing sea ice on the process of mate attraction will all be the subject of future study.

Related Links

- Paper in the Journal of Zoology
- San Diego Zoo release
- Polar Bears International release
- CBC News story
- BBC News story