Unlike their cousins around the world, Polar bears are relatively non-verbal communicators. Given that polar bears are mostly solitary creatures and their home ranges are so large, verbal communication may not be the most effective strategy. Body language and scent markings offer a much more diverse and practical way of communication between bears on the ice by using their great sense of smell.
Mother polar bears use a range of sounds to communicate with their cubs. Each mother’s sounds are unique and she will use them to locate, encourage, and 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 quickly, are all ways in which mothers communicate. Male bears may growl and roar when other male bears are present for a number of reasons such as competition for food or for a female in the area. Vocalising is used to warn other bears in order to avoid an actual physical altercation from occurring. Physically fighting with one another uses a large amount of energy and can sometimes result in serious injury, possibly leading to difficulty hunting or death.
Communication though body language can be shown using large, fast movements or they can be small and subtle. Large movements are most commonly shown when male bears are mock or play fighting. For young bears, this play fighting behaviour is vital because it teaches skills that could one day help them to win a fight with another bear over food or a mate. Play fighting is also used at the end of the summer months to prepare bears for traveling and hunting during the winter months. To initiate this play fighting behaviour, one bear will slowly approach another with its head down. They will then sniff each other’s faces or go mouth-to-mouth (holding their mouths open toward each others face and neck without actually biting), then one or both will stand on their hind legs and try to push the other over. This type of play is called sparring and will often turn into wrestling, with one bear holding the other down and biting his neck, face, and body. These interactions can become quiet rough, sometimes with blood being drawn but bears are tough. It is all in good fun.
Another occasion when communication is essential, is over a large food source. Dead whales which float to the surface provide enough food for a number of bears to feed at the same time. Younger, less dominant bears must be cautious about how they approach a bear which may already be eating. They must ‘ask’ to feed by approaching slowly and submissively, then touch noses with the dominant bear. If done correctly, the approaching bear will be allowed to eat but if not they could be chased away and forced to find another food source.
Recent studies have looked into the use of scent trails left by a bear’s foot prints in the snow as a way of locating other bears. While black and grizzly bears will leave scent markings on trees, a polar bears’ environment is stark and lacking of such landmarks. Wild Polar bears have been observed sniffing and following the foot prints of bears which have passed through that area. Studies on captive bears suggest that male bears are able to distinguish between male or female, and possibly if the female is sexually mature. The ability to find a mate using this technique is crucial as polar bears can have home ranges as large as a few hundred miles and may not physically comes across another bear unless following a scent trail.