Black bears, koala bears, and even pandas are all skillful at climbing trees. But, what about the polar bear? Can they climb trees?
No, although most bears climb trees, polar bears can’t climb trees as they lost this ability through evolution. This is because they live in the arctic tundra which does not have any trees so they have not required this skill like other bear species.
Keep reading to find out more about which bears can climb trees and why polar bears can’t.
Why Can’t Polar Bears Climb Trees?
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Polar bears live in the northernmost part of the world. They spend winter on the sea ice around the north pole and summer in the arctic tundra of North America and Eurasia.
These regions only have basic vegetation, if any at all. During the summer months, the tudra soil thaws enough for shrubs, grasses, and mosses to grow. However, a layer of permafrost underneath prevents tree roots from taking hold so the region is treeless.
The lack of trees is the main reason why polar bears can’t climb them. Although many other species can climb trees, through evolution the polar bear has lost this ability 1 (source: The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, Amaike H, et al, Aug 2021).
However, they have adapted to survive the cold climate in other ways, with traits such as fur that provides camouflage against the snow, large fat reserves for energy and insulation, and sharp claws to catch their slippery prey of marine mammals.
Despite not being able to climb trees, it is thought that they do have a strong ability to climb other objects. A polar bear was once spotted climbing a ladder to reach a platform where seals were being stored for dog food2 (source: Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior, A. E. Derocher, 2012).
Which Bears Can Climb Trees?
Most bears can climb trees, this is because they evolved from the Miacidae, a small tree-climbing mammal that existed 62–34 million years ago. Even though bears grew to be much larger than the Miacidae, most did not lose their tree-climbing abilities3 (source: Bears: Their Biology and Management, S. Herrero, Vol. 2, 1972).
However, there are some exceptions. We’ve already mentioned polar bears, but they are not alone without the ability to climb trees. Adult brown bears are also unable to climb trees, although this is because of their size rather than the lack of trees in their habitat.
Young brown bears do have tree-climbing abilities, but they lose them as they progress into adulthood4 (source: The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, Amaike H, et al, Aug 2021).
Can Polar Bears Swim?
Yes, polar bears have an excellent ability to swim, this is an essential part of their hunting technique as they will dive in the water to catch seals other marine mammals that make up their diet. They also use long-distance swimming when migrating from the sea ice to the mainland as the ice melts in summer.
Polar bears have evolved webbed paws and they can hold their breath underwater for long periods which helps them sneak up on their prey from below the surface of the water.