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What is polar bear fur made of?

Polar bears are one of the most iconic animals in the world. These massive white bears have adapted to survive in the frigid Arctic climate. One of the polar bear’s key adaptations is its thick fur coat, which insulates the bear from the cold air and water. But what exactly makes polar bear fur so effective at retaining heat? Here, we’ll take a deep dive into the composition and structure of polar bear fur to understand how it helps these bears thrive in harsh conditions.

The Insulating Properties of Fur

Fur consists of two layers – a dense underfur layer close to the skin and an outer layer of guard hairs. The underfur does most of the insulating work. This fluffy inner layer traps air close to the skin, creating an insulating barrier to prevent body heat loss. The guard hairs are longer, coarser hairs that protect the underfur layer from wind and water. This dual-layer structure makes fur an excellent natural insulator.

In addition, fur provides insulation through the physical properties of the individual hairs. Each hair has a core medulla filled with air pockets. The air trapped in these pockets provides further insulation. Fur also stands erect to create another layer of trapped air between hairs. Overall, the combination of underfur and guard hairs creates a substantial barrier of trapped air to retain a mammal’s body heat.

The Remarkable Density and Length of Polar Bear Fur

Polar bears have adapted their fur over thousands of years to provide maximum insulation. Their fur density is incredible – there are about 5,000-15,000 hairs per square centimeter on their bodies. For comparison, humans have 100-170 hairs per square centimeter. This extremely dense underfur helps polar bears stay warm.

In addition, the individual polar bear hairs are exceptionally long. Their guard hairs can reach up to 8 inches in length. Longer fur allows more air to be trapped for insulation. The longer guard hairs also provide a thick, wind-resistant barrier.

Here are some key facts about polar bear fur density and length:

Body part Fur density (hairs per sq cm) Guard hair length (inches)
Shoulder 11,000 4-5
Hind legs 5,500 3-4
Neck 14,000 8

As this data shows, the shoulder, hind legs, and neck are the areas with the thickest, longest fur. These areas need heavy insulation and protection as they are most exposed in the polar bears’ icy environment.

Water-Repellent Fur Structure

Polar bear fur has also adapted to properly shed water. Polar bears spend significant time in and around frigid Arctic waters without getting wet thanks to their fur’s water-repelling properties. The individual guard hairs are oily with a non-wetting surface. This causes water to roll straight off the bear’s fur. Under each guard hair is a dense mat of underfur hairs. This mat traps air to keep the polar bear’s skin totally dry underneath.

In addition, polar bears frequently shake themselves or rub against ice and snow to get rid of excess water in their coat. By repelling and shaking off water before it reaches the skin, the insulating capacity of the fur remains uncompromised.

Seasonal Fur Differences

Polar bears actually have two different coats over the year – a thinner summer coat and a thick winter coat. In summer, increased blood flow to the skin allows bears to overheat more easily. So polar bears adapt by shedding their dense winter underfur. Only the outer guard hairs remain through the summer. Still, this thinner coat allows polar bears to reflect solar radiation and prevents overheating in the 24-hour summer daylight.

In late fall, polar bears begin growing their full winter coats. Blood flow to the skin decreases to conserve heat. The underfur grows exceptionally thick and long to provide warmth through the brutal winter months in complete darkness. This seasonal cycling shows how polar bears have adapted both structurally and physiologically to thrive in an extreme environment of icy winters and continuous summer light.

Unique Facial Fur

Interestingly, the fur on a polar bear’s face has unique properties compared to the rest of its body. A polar bear’s facial fur is actually transparent and hollow. The hollow cores help conduct heat directly to the bear’s skin to keep the face warm. The transparent hairs blend in with the white fur surrounding them while allowing for maximal heat absorption from any scarce sunlight. This shows how even the facial fur of polar bears has uniquely adapted to aid survival in cold and dark conditions.


In summary, polar bear fur has a number of specialised adaptations to provide insulation. An extremely dense underfur, long oily guard hairs, and water-repelling coat work together to keep polar bears warm and dry. Seasonal fattening and shedding of the coat assists bears in managing temperature across the year. The unique facial fur also demonstrates how even small differences in hair structure serve an important purpose. After thousands of years evolving in harsh environments, polar bears have developed fur perfectly adapted to their lifestyle. Their remarkable fur allows them to roam, swim and hunt in even the iciest realms of the Arctic.