Do polar bears cover their noses while hunting?

Polar bears really are very well camouflaged for their wintry habitat — except for that black snout. Their solution, according to oral traditions of local hunters, as well as occasional reports from outsiders, is to cover it with a paw while hunting. A nifty idea, but also rather dubious.

If I was more adventurous I would already be donning pack and snowshoes and heading for the Arctic Circle. Alas neither my expenses nor my constitution are suited to going on a bear hunt in the icy northern wastes, so instead you’ll have to rely on the reports of those hardy types who do observe polar bears in the wild.

And polar bears are very hard to observe: they live in an unforgiving climate, they are hard to find and when you do find one it has to be handled with great care. Much of what we know of Ursus maritimus comes indirectly, from studying what remains once the bears have gone, so settling the question of what they do with their noses when hunting is really quite tricky.

It took a long time to discover that the bears mostly hunt by crouching silently at the edge of the ice for hours on end until a hapless seal surfaces right into their waiting paws. For this kind of hunting, at least, the nose isn’t even a factor.

Polar bears do stalk prey sometimes, but lengthy scientific observation has not turned up any instances of polar bears covering their noses while stalking.

The experts seem reluctant to rule it out, though. Bears are quick studies, so if they happen upon a hunting technique that works they will adopt it. Polar bears have been seen impersonating icebergs and otherwise making themselves inconspicuous.

Perhaps some bears have discovered the paw-over-the-nose trick and scientists have just not seen it. If you think you can do better, don’t let me stop you, just take care to dress warm — I hear it can get nippy. Until you get back I’m content to sit tight and accept that polar bears do not cover their noses while hunting.

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