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Arctic Polar Bears: Why They Don’t Appear in Antarctica

4 min read

The striking polar bear is the King of the Arctic and colloquially known as The Rider of Icebergs. Polar bears are a fascinating species, and excursions to their natural habitats are beloved by explorers far and wide. Nature lovers dream of seeing wild animals hunting and thriving in their natural environments, and few are as exquisite to see as the glorious polar bear.

Polar bears are observed on many Arctic voyages, especially on expeditions to Greenland, Svalbard and the Canadian Arctic.

A polar bear hunts for seals at the edge of the Arctic ice. Photo: Hugo Perrin

For millions of years, polar bears have called the Arctic circle home. Polar bears evolved from a population of brown bears and adapted to Arctic conditions in order to thrive. Some polar bears will leave the Arctic circle to explore other subArctic climates in northern Canada, Alaska, Russia, Norway, and Greenland. In fact, Greenland is one of the top locations to see polar bears and the northern lights, and Quark Expeditions will take you on an adventure to remember if you book your passage on the Under The Northern Lights excursion.

However, the traditional home of the polar bear is undergoing a massive retransformation. Warming temperatures are changing the Arctic Circle, prompting many to wonder what will become of the remaining polar bears in the Arctic. This has raised the idea of relocating polar bears from the Arctic to Antarctica and sub-Antarctic environments. The question is: should there be polar bears in Antarctica?

A mama bear and her cub in the remote Russian Arctic archipelago of  Franz Josef Land.

A mama polar bear and her cub in the Norwegian Arctic. Photo: Quark Expeditions

Should there be polar bears in Antarctica?

At Quark Expeditions, we believe in environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism. Those values are the core of our Polar Promise, a mandate to protect the magnificent places we bring tourists so they can undergo a life-changing adventure, and leave behind the pristine beauty of the landscape just as they found it.

We take our commitments to conserve and positively impact polar environments very seriously. We believe that introducing a non-native species to a polar environment is high-risk and interferes with the ecosystems of the regions we protect. Antarctica is a native habitat for incredible wildlife, particularly penguins. Travelers are most likely to see the adélie, chinstrap, emperor, king, and gentoo penguins while undergoing incredible journeys across the continent, especially aboard our Epic Antarctica voyage that includes stops at the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Wouldn't polar bears just love Antarctica? Think about it: ice, snow, and freezing temperatures. A veritable smorgasbord of seals – the polar bear's main meal. And lots of water for swimming (polar bears are, after all, marine mammals and exceptional swimmers.) Plus, they would be the dominant predator so you'd think Antarctica would be a paradise for polar bears.

That's just not the case. Polar bears are native to the Arctic rather than the Antarctic. They have never set foot in Antarctica for reasons that date back millions of years. For that reason, one supported by Polar Bears International, their presence in Antarctica would be a disruption of the natural ecosystem of the continent, which could threaten the wildlife that does call the wonderful southern habitat home.

How polar bears evolved in the Arctic

Nearly 300 million years ago, the Earth's continents were all interconnected as one supercontinent, known as Pangaea. Rather than four separate oceans, as we have today, there was only one ocean that surrounded the entire landmass of Pangaea. Animals were free to travel from the most northern, southern, eastern, and western regions without interruption.

When the Earth's tectonic plates finally broke up Pangaea, the ocean that surrounded the supercontinent flooded into the cracks between the now separate landmasses. The sheer power of the water forced the continents further and further apart until they settled in the locations charted on maps today.

Polar bears diverged from brown bears shortly after the breakup of Pangaea. A subspecies of brown bear was confined to the northern Laurasian continent, and that species evolved into the polar bear in order to thrive in the cold northern climates where their ancestors settled following the breakup of Pangaea. This is why the natural habitat of the polar bear is the Arctic Circle, which you can visit and appreciate on expeditions like Best of the Western Arctic.

Are there polar bears in Antarctica?

Polar bears, which are marine mammals, thrive where there's a good food source, which, in their case, is
predominantly seals. Photo: Acacia Johnson

The short answer is, no. The Arctic is the natural home for polar bears. No polar dwell in Antarctica or any sub-Antarctic islands.

In light of the damaging effects of climate change in the north, the question remains: should there be polar bears in Antarctica in order to preserve the remaining population, and help the polar bears thrive in a new environment? This is the question that scientists and ecologists have wrestled with dating back to at least 2008.

Polar bears are one of the vulnerable species on this planet, due in large part to the melting of the Arctic icebergs. The melting of the polar ice caps poses one of the single biggest threats to the polar bear's survival.

Can we move polar bears to Antarctica?

We've partnered with Polar Bears International to identify and promote how to protect polar bears in the Arctic environment. Polar Bears International has detailed their position on why relocating polar bears to Antarctica would be of greater risk than reward, a position that we support.
Where can you see polar bears in the Arctic?

The Antarctic is one of the most breathtaking locations you can visit but, unfortunately, there are no polar bears to see on the southern continent. Instead, you can find polar bears to the north in the Arctic where beautiful icebergs float across the ocean as they're illuminated by the sun in the sky. Experiences in the south or the north are what you'll have to decide upon between a voyage to the Antarctic vs. the Arctic.

If you do decide polar bears are what you want to see, there are many places to go in the Arctic for such an adventure. One of the best locations is the Svalbard archipelago in the Norwegian Arctic. Quark Expeditions arranges a 14-day adventure across the region, which includes the Spitsbergen Photography: In Search of Polar Bears excursion that takes you onto the island of Spitsbergen where you can photograph the majestic polar bear in its natural environment.

While appreciating the polar bears as they hunt for their next meal, you'll get to watch as they partake in many of their daily habits. There are a number of secrets about polar bears you may not know about, but the adventure to Svalbard will help open your eyes to a whole new appreciation for the Kings of the Arctic.

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