What Turns Polar Bears White? [Can they Change Color?]

The reflection and scattering of light by their translucent fur turns the polar bears white. According to recent studies, reflection from the surrounding snow and ice also turns them white. The fur of polar bears is translucent and hollow. Their hair is filled with air that helps them scatter the light. As a result, it gives them their white look.

Thus, the translucency of the polar bear’s fur, which is actually colorless, makes them appear white.  Do you know other factors that contribute to their white appearance in the Arctic? We all know that polar bears are actually transparent, so why do they appear white?

The iconic white fur of polar bears has many secrets hidden from us. That’s why we are here to unfold the furry secrets of what turns polar bears white. Let’s go through the article and prepare to enjoy fun facts.

Do Polar Bears Change Color?

No, polar bears do not change color. How can they change color if they are colorless or translucent? It’s their fur that reflects different colors. As everyone knows, the fur of polar bears looks white, but some other factors make them appear in different colors. It only happens sometimes; there are some special cases.

The fur of polar bears easily manipulates its color due to environmental factors. Thus, the environment affects their fur color a lot. Let’s just name a few colors of the polar bear’s fur: orange, yellow, brown, green, and gray.

Hence, we can say that they do not change colors but reflect different ones. However, it sometimes happens due to valid reasons (i.e., surroundings)!

Here is a summary of a few colors that their fur reflects when their environment changes:

  • Yellow: This color occurs on the fur of polar bears due to an excessive oily diet. Their last meal is the cause of yellow fur due to oil stains.
  • Orange: You’ll not see orange-colored fur in the daytime or at night. Their fur shows this color, specifically during sunset hours. This is because, during this period, the sunlight appears more crimson than typical.
  • Green: Polar bears that live in zoos often get greener fur. It happens when the algae in zoos stain their colorless fur. Scientists believe that pond waters can also cause algae growth in polar bears’ hollow hairs. According to Ocean Conservancy’s study, polar bears’ fur will remain white/transparent if they have a proper filtration system. In this way, their white fur remains white. ~ Source
  • Gray: Gray fur color appears when the sky is cloudy. Cloudy days do not have plenty of sunlight. That’s why polar bears’ fur reflects gray color, the color of clouds.
  • White: White color appears on the fur of polar bears when pure and natural sunlight hits the bear’s fur directly. For your information, the natural light of the sun is white.

Thus, polar bears and their coloration phenomenon is quite interesting. You would be wondering if the fur of polar bears shows many colors, then why are we saying they don’t change colors? This is because the misconception comes from their fur appearing differently.

It depends on the lighting conditions and the angle of the sunlight. Polar bears do not undergo seasonal color changes like many other animals. Their actual fur color remains translucent throughout their lives.

What Turns Polar Bears White? Why Are Polar Bears White?

polar bear

According to the report of Megan Montemurno, from Ocean Conservancy, the hair shafts of polar bears have empty spaces (they are hollow). Their tabular structures can reflect the light of the sun. Similar to ice, this type of reflective property is why polar bears occasionally turn white or yellow. ~ Source

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The report also states the following about polar bear’s fur:

“Polar bear experts believe that their thick, transparent coats are specifically designed to enhance heat absorption from the sun. This heat is then directed to their black skin underneath. It results in temperature regulation. The temperature in the Arctic can drop below -30° F. The fur makes this heat-absorbing adaptation particularly beneficial for polar bears in such extreme cold conditions.”

Another report on WonderOpolis organization states the same reason why polar bears turn white: ~ Source.

“Air spaces within polar bear hairs scatter light in all colors. This resulted in the appearance of white fur. When we observe polar bears, their color appears white due to this scattering effect.”

According to this report, some scientists have a unique theory behind why polar bears turn their translucent fur into white or any other color. These scientists and researchers believe that polar bears were once the close cousins or relatives of brown bears. They also think these polar bears moved from other locations towards Arctic regions and started living in these icy temperatures. Time passed and the polar bears started adapting to the Arctic environment and surroundings. ~ Source

How White Color of Polar Bears Help Them to Survive In Their Environment?

Polar Bear

We know that white or translucent color helps them to survive in their Arctic environment. Here are a few benefits of the white fur color of polar bears, according to the World Wildlife Report: ~ Source

1. Camouflage in Arctic Environment

According to the report of WWF:

“Polar bears can get camouflaged with the help of white fur. It helps them to blend easily and transparently in the Arctic environment. The polar bear’s coat is exceptionally well-camouflaged in the Arctic surroundings. Sometimes, it can occasionally be mistaken for a mound of snow.”

Thus, polar bears become invisible in snow and ice due to their white color fur. This physical adaptation makes them less visible to their prey, such as seals. Also, this type of camouflage is essential for stealthy hunting. It also enables them to get closer to their prey without being noticed.

2. Ambush Predation While Hunting Food

Polar bears can wait for hours near breathing holes or Seal dens. Why? They lie near these spots until their prey gets close enough.

In this way, they make surprise attacks. As we have mentioned before, the white colored fur helps them to stay hidden during these ambushes. And white fur plays a vital role in these surprise attacks.

3. Regulate Body Temperature

The World Wildlife Organization’s report says their coat is not white because they have white pigments. In fact, their hairs are hollow, and they do not have white pigments like us. Interestingly, their skin color is black. The report further quotes:

“Polar bears have a substantial layer of blubber or body fat that provides warmth during swimming. Additionally, their coat is double layered. It offers them effective insulation against the frigid Arctic air.”

According to the research of Ocean Conservancy organization, we found the following facts:

“Apart from a thick layer of fat (around 2-4 inches), polar bears have two distinct fur coats:

  • Protective outer layer
  • Dense undercoat
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This dual layer serves multiple purposes. For example, it provides insulation against the harsh Arctic climate. It also offers effective camouflage in snowy surroundings, which proves advantageous during hunting expeditions.”

Thus, it is clear that polar bears’ white fur regulates their body temperature. This type of fur helps them to reflect sunlight. As a result, it reduces heat absorption. This characteristic is beneficial in the cold Arctic regions. Not just this, it also prevents them from overheating while hunting for food or moving under the intense Arctic sun.

4. Avoiding Predators

These furry creatures still face confrontations with other bears or larger carnivores like humans.

Here, the white coloration of polar bears’ fur helps them a lot. It helps them in avoiding unnecessary conflicts. They can remain concealed when needed. Thus, credit goes to their translucent fur, which helps them blend with the environment.

5. Peaceful Social Interactions

The white fur of polar bears helps them interact with others. It uplifts social interactions by reducing visibility and aggression between different individuals. They try camouflaging and preventing confrontations and territorial disputes in their vast Arctic habitat.

Also, their white fur blends them into the snow-covered environment when they come together for mating or encounters. This behavior makes it easier for bears to approach each other without triggering defensive reactions.

Hence, polar bears’ white coloration helps them to survive and thrive in harsh conditions and unforgiving Arctic environments. However, these advantages become more challenging for them when the climate changes and the sea ice reduces. This makes their conservation and protection even more critical.

Can The White Fur of Polar Bears Change Color Due to Age Or Health?

Polar Bear

No, currently, there are no pieces of evidence that polar bears’ white fur changes color due to age or any health issue. However, according to one of our Quora colleagues (a National Geographic Photographer, too), polar bears’ white fur starts turning a little yellowish when they age.

Moreover, their white reflected color is just like the color of most white birds (like snowy owls), whose feathers start yellowing as age passes. ~ Source

But still, no other theory states that polar bears’ white and hollow fur changes with age and health. Let’s think about another reason here. Their genetics determines the fur color of polar bears.

So, how could they be influenced by age or health? However, their fur might show slightly different shades depending on the following factors:

  • Lighting conditions
  • Time of year
  • The angle of the Sun

Let’s take an example. The polar bear’s fur may appear more yellowish in certain lightning. But, this is not a change in the actual color of their fur. This is just a light effect on the translucent fur. ~ Source

Frequently Asked Questions

Do baby polar bears change color?

Yes, baby polar bears or cubs change their color. Their skin color is pink at birth but turns black after a few months. Similarly, the fur of cubs is grayish and sometimes brownish, which turns into pure white over time.

What is the real color of a polar bear?

The real color of polar bears’ fur is “no color at all.” Yup, their fur is not actually white; it’s translucent. We have discussed before why they appear white and how. Furthermore, their skin color is totally black. So, their true color is a combination of translucent fur and black skin.

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How did polar bears go from brown to white?

According to the report of Arctic News Forum, polar bears evolved from common Brown bears hundreds of years ago. Natural selection and habitat change cause their furs to turn into white color. In the Arctic’s icy areas, polar bears with lighter coats were better camouflaged and had a higher chance of hunting success. Over time, these lighter-colored bears passed on their genes. This leads to a population with mostly white fur.

Thus, this adaptation helped them survive and thrive in their snowy habitat. And, that’s how they go from brown to white polar bears of the Arctic. According to a Science report, polar bears were split off from brown bears around 600,000 years ago. However, many researchers disapprove of this belief. ~ Source

Do polar bears’ fur change during different seasons?

Yes, the fur of polar bears changes during different seasons. According to the study by Sea World Organization, polar bears can molt their fur after every year completely. It means they can replace or shed their fur. Moreover, it mainly happens in the seasons of May or June.

Are there any disadvantages to polar bears having white fur?

Yes, there are some disadvantages to polar bears having white fur. Their white fur does not provide as much insulation as they need in extremely cold weather conditions. They also become exhausted and overheated when they run smaller distances.

How do polar bears clean their fur?

Polar bears are pretty meticulous about keeping their fur neat and clean. They do not accept dirty fur for their bodies to keep them warm. That’s why they swim in the water and sometimes roll in the soft snow to clean their dirty fur. Also, they cool down their overheated bodies. They do this particularly after playing with cuddly cubs and right after grueling hunts.

Does pressure make polar bears white?

No, pressure does not make polar bears white. Their white fur color is not influenced by pressure or any other external factors. Their fur coloration is a result of genetic adaptations and reflected sunlight, not pressure.

Does air make polar bears white?

No, air is also not responsible for the white coloration of polar bears. If it’s their inhaled air or external environmental air, no air is responsible for their white fur. Thus, polar bears are white due to their genetic makeup, not any influence from external or internal air or pressure.

Do polar bears stay white all of their life?

Absolutely Yes! Polar bears generally stay white throughout their lives. Many animals undergo color changes with age. But this is not the case with polar bears, just like Arctic snowy owls that do not change color with age. Polar bears retain their white fur from birth to adulthood.

Conclusion

Polar bears’ remarkable white fur adaptations have evolved over time. This enables them to thrive in the unforgiving Arctic environment. We continue to cherish and protect these iconic creatures for future generations.

Hope you like reading about the polar bear’s secrets. There is a lot to unfold. There are many secrets about polar bears that need to be discussed.

If you need clarification, you can ask in our comments section.

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