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 04.28.17

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AL*ASK*A SCIENTIST

We regret that we are no longer accepting new questions for our Alaska Scientist section. Please enjoy the past questions and answers, and thank you to those who have contributed questions or assisted with answers.

Q: How long does it take for a polar bear to catch a fish?
Calen Johnson, of Webster, SD

Actually, most polar bears we know are more into seals than sushi.

“Polar bears probably rarely eat fish in the wild,” says Steven Amstrup, a polar bear researcher with the United States Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center. Though some isolated populations of polar bears have been known to enjoy fish, he says, in Alaska today, “The main diet of polar bears is seals, and in most of their range, it’s ringed seals.”

We do know of at least one Alaska polar bear that is a fish eater: Ahpun, the resident polar bear at The Alaska Zoo. This polar bear, adopted as a cub, eats dog-food-like “polar bear nuggets” most of the time, but also gets fish treats, including some frozen fish that were used as candles on her giant (snow) birthday cake this year, says zoo curator Pat Lampi.

Ahpun the polar bearOn special occasions, the zoo gives Ahpun live fish, to keep her entertained and exercised. The first time zookeepers did this, they put five silver salmon in the water in her enclosure, thinking they might last a few weeks. Instead, Ahpun caught all five silver salmon within about 45 minutes. That’s about nine minutes per fish!

Ahpun didn’t eat them, though. Instead, the fresh catch was snapped up by her companion Oreo, a brown bear who lived in the same enclosure.

“The next time we got 50 rainbow trout,” said Lampi. “Those were very fast, and it took them over a month to catch them all.”

In the wild, dinner rarely comes easily, notes researcher Amstrup. It takes a lot of effort for a polar bear to capture its seal meal. “They miss a lot more often than they’re successful,” says Amstrup. “We think a polar bear catches on average about a seal a week.”

Once it catches its prey, it may take a polar bear about two hours to finish the meal - or at least, to finish the fattening, tasty parts they like best. Adults leave the lean leftovers behind for younger bears to grow on.

Steven Amstrup, PhD., Ursid and Arctic Marine Team Leader, USGS Alaska Science Center, and Alaska Zoo curator Pat Lampi.


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