Like all organisms, the polar bear, Ursus maritimus, lives in a habitat composed of both biotic and abiotic factors. Biotic factors are simply those that are alive or were once living. Abiotic factors are physical and chemical entities other than those comprised of living or once-living beings. When you learn about both kinds of factors in the polar bear's Arctic habitat, you gain a detailed, fascinating picture of a unique animal and its astounding adaptations to its harsh ecological niche.
Meteorological Abiotic Factors
Arctic temperatures range from 10 degrees Celsius in summer to below minus 30 in winter. Winter has little to no sunlight. Summer has near-continuous daytime but little solar radiation is absorbed because snow and ice are so reflective. Yearly precipitation, mostly snowfall and frost, ranges between 60 and 125 centimetres. Surface winds can exceed 60 kilometres per hour and blow blinding snow. To maintain adequate, constant body heat in these conditions, polar bears have evolved double layers of white fur, small tails and ears and shelter-digging and muzzle-covering behaviours.
Water-Related Abiotic Factors
Polar bears migrate seasonally between the Arctic Ocean's shores and packs of sea ice. Free freshwater is markedly rare in these places, but eating snow and ice is not energy efficient. Polar bears have evolved other strategies for extracting and conserving water. They prefer blubber over muscle tissue because their bodies derive water from the metabolic breakdown of fat. Their urine is very concentrated. Pregnant females minimise their water needs by hibernating in dens. Polar bears have other adaptations to water-related abiotic factors, including their swimming and diving abilities, keen underwater vision, buoyant fat layers and broad paws suited to walking and running on ice and snow.
Polar bears are the "apex predators" of the Arctic marine food web -- that is, they are not prey to any other animals, with the exception of humans. However, they depend like all other living beings in their habitat upon the food web's health. Polar bears mostly eat seals they hunt on the sea ice. These seals consume fish, which, in turn, survive on smaller organisms such as plankton. Because the winter lacks sunlight for photosynthesis among plantlike plankton species, highly specialised algae and other "lower" organisms have evolved to survive year-round in the sea ice. The ice algae alone account for more than half of all bioproductivity in the Arctic.
Although the Arctic's small human population pollutes relatively little, global environmental problems alter and endanger both biotic and abiotic factors in this once-pristine region. From predominantly distant sources, mercury and the endocrine-disrupting chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) have become unusually concentrated in Arctic wildlife, most of all in polar bears, compromising their immune and reproductive health especially. Global warming has greatly thinned and disrupted the seasonal patterns of the sea ice, threatening the entire food web of which polar bears are a part.
- Indiana Public Media: A Moment of Science: How Do Polar Bears Drink?; Don Glass; 27 September 2003
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration: Is the Arctic a Missing Sink for Mercury?; Steve Lindberg and Steve Brooks
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration: Sea Ice: A Refuge for Life in Polar Seas?; Christopher Krembs and Jody Deming
- National Snow and Ice Data Center: Arctic Climatology and Meteorology Primer for Newcomers to the North
- Polar Bears International
- SeaWorld: Animals: Polar Bear
- Alaska Marine Conservation Council: Arctic Marine Food Web
- Encyclopedia of Earth: Abiotic Factor; C. Michael Hogan; 9 October 2010
- Encyclopedia of Earth; Future Biotic Change in the Arctic; Internatl. Arctic Sci. Comm.; 9 Feb. 2010
- Encyclopedia of Life: Ursus maritimus, Polar Bear
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration:...Polar Bears in Recent Decades; S.L. Schliebe
- University of Guelph: Canada's Arctic: Winds