Friday, October 14, 2011

Polar Bear Hair

Polar Bear photographed by Iva Peklova
Bears scare me, in fact, they scare me more than anything else. As a child, I would lay awake in my second story bedroom fearing that a bear would crash through my window at any moment. Even then, I was well aware the black bears in the area preferred to forage for berries and grubs over breaking into a child's bedroom but, I still feared them.

If I camp in the woods, any twig breaking or rustling sound will immediately start me thinking of bears. I've seen plenty of wild bears (black bears, grizzlies and polar bears) and I've never had a bad experience – mostly the bears acted terrified of me (perhaps as cubs they feared people would break into the dens). I'm forced to conclude that my life-long bear fear is irrational – at least I no longer fear bears will break into my urban second story bedroom.

In the temperate climate I live in, I don't see a bear every time I step in the forest. In fact, I rarely see them. However, every time I've been to the arctic, I've seen polar bears. I've seen more polar bears in the wild than any other type of bear. The arctic is huge and there are not a lot of polar bears, so I find it somewhat strange that I see them most often.

When I was shopping for my dad's birthday present (he ties flies for fishing), I was drawn to a swatch of polar bear hair. I wanted to touch it, so I bought the package and took it home. Polar bears aren't truly white, instead they are more of a cream colour. In a southern zoo setting they can even acquire a tint of green from algae growth.

If you look closely at a polar bear's hair, it is hollow and transparent. At some point an urban myth was promulgated that the hairs were acted like natural fibre optic cables, channelling the light, especially UV down to the bear's black skin. It doesn't quite work that way, instead light just passes through the hair to heat the skin. In this case, the simple answer is the right one.

As a tangent, the polar bear hair felt wiry rather than soft like I expected.

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