Polar bear
© Steve Morello / WWF

Polar bear diet

Polar bears are the top predator in the Arctic marine ecosystem.

Because the polar bear's body requires a diet based on large amounts of seal fat, it is the most carnivorous member of the bear family.

Food can be hard to come by for polar bears for much of the year. The bear puts on most of its yearly fat reserves between late April and mid-July to maintain its weight in the lean seasons.

The food-free season can last 3 to 4 months -- or even longer in areas like Canada's Hudson Bay. As the Arctic warms due to climate change, the ice pack is forming later in the season, and bears must wait longer to begin hunting again.

What do polar bears eat?

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Ringed seals

Seals are a particularly energy-rich food source, especially for hungry mothers and their growing cubs. Polar bears can devour huge amounts of fat from seals when this prey is abundant.
©WWF / Sindre Kinnerod
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Bearded and other seals

Polar bears largely eat ringed and bearded seals, but depending upon their location, they may eat harp, hooded and ribbon seal. A 121-pound seal can provide 8 days worth of energy - but the bear needs to eat much more in order to store up reserves. When there are plenty of seals, adult polar bears only eat the fat, leaving the carcass for scavengers such as foxes, ravens and younger bears.
©Ole Joergen Liodden / WWF
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Carcasses

Polar bears use their sense of smell to detect a carcass from nearly 20 miles away. They will happily feed on the carcasses of beluga whales, grey whales, walruses, narwhals and bowhead whales when available.
©Steve Morello / WWF
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Garbage, berries, seaweed and more

Polar bears may attempt to find alternate prey on shore, including muskox, reindeer, small rodents, waterfowl, shellfish, fish, eggs, kelp, berries and even human garbage. Bears attracted to communities by garbage or stored food may come into conflict with people.
©Elisabeth Kruger / WWF
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More difficult prey

Occasionally, the bears will hunt narwhals, beluga whales and adult walrus.
©Christopher King / WWF

Did you know?

  • Don't move!
    The polar bear often relies on "still hunting" -- patiently waiting next to a hole in the ice until it senses a surfacing seal.
  • Hunting by smell
    Using its sense of smell, the polar bear will locate seal birth lairs, and then break through the lair's roof in order to catch its prey.
  • Learning to hunt
    The adolescent polar bear often has to scavenge on the carcasses of other bears' kills while learning to develop its own hunting skills.
  • Efficient digestion
    The bear's digestive system absorbs approximately 84% of the protein and 97% of the fat it consumes.
  • Fatty diet
    The average polar bear can consume 2kg (4.4 lbs) of fat in a day.
  • A big appetite
    The bear's enormous stomach can hold 10-20% of its body weight