Polar bears are largely non-verbal communicators. Given that polar bears are mostly solitary with an expansive home range, verbal communication is often not the most effective strategy. Body language and scent markings offer a much more diverse and practical way of communication between these arctic giants.
Female polar bears will use a range of sounds to communicate with their cubs. She will use them to locate, encourage or warn cubs of possible threats, such as large male polar bears. Noises such as low growls, throat rumbles and chuffing (where air is pushed from the mouth in short, fast bursts) are all ways in which mothers communicate. Male bears may use growling or roaring type vocalizations when defending a resource, such as food or a female mate. Vocalizations are used to convey messages between bears whilst avoiding potentially dangerous physical contact. Physical contact requires a large amount of energy and may result in one or both bears becoming injured, which could lead to an untimely death if they are unable to hunt.
Communication using body language can be exhibited through large, obvious movements or small, subtle gestures. Play fighting between male bears is a great example of bodily communication - something which can be seen in the bears at The Habitat. Sparring and wrestling is a valuable way for male bears to strengthen their muscles and perfect the skills they may need when competing with other male bears. To initiate this behaviour, two bears will come together with their heads up, then they may smell each other's faces and bodies. This may then lead to them going mouth to mouth - a friendly behaviour where bears open their mouths toward each other's faces without actually biting down. If both bears are agreeable, they will then stand on their hind legs and push on one another’s chests. This behaviour is called sparring, and will often lead to wrestling, with one bear holding the other down and gently biting the others face, neck and body. While this behaviour can seem very rough, the goal is not to hurt one another. These interactions are largely silent, with only the sound of their bodies crashing into one another. Actual fighting between bears is very vocal, making it easy to distinguish between play and aggression.
Competition over food can be fierce, but with the right kind of communication, food can be shared. Dead whales occasionally wash up on shore and provide a valuable food source which can feed many bears at once. Smaller, younger bears must be cautious when approaching a large food source which is already occupied by another bear. They must ‘ask’ to join by approaching in a slow and submissive manner, then touch noses with the dominant bear. If done correctly, the approaching bear may stay and eat but if not, they could be chased away and forced to find another food source.
Recent studies have investigated the use of scent markings left by a bear’s foot prints in the snow, as a way of locating other bears. While black and grizzly bears will rub against trees to leave their scent, a polar bears’ environment often lacks such landmarks. During the spring breeding season, females release a pheromone from their paws which the males can smell. Males will then use their acute sense of smell and follow these footprints to the female.