Free the Ocean Blog

From Sea Bear to Ursus Maritimus: The Many Names of Polar Bears!

The polar bear, scientifically known as Ursus maritimus, earns its nickname “sea bear” because of its reliance on the ocean. Introduced by Commander C.J. Phipps in 1774, this term holds significance as polar bears are the only bear species that are considered marine mammals. At first, people thought polar bears might belong to a different group of closely related species. For a short time, they were given a different name, Thalarctos, which comes from the Greek words “thalasso” meaning sea and “arctos” meaning bear. But later on, they went back to being called polar bears in 1971.

Myth and Legend: Norse Poetic Names

Throughout history, polar bears have captured imaginations, with Norse poets attributing them strength beyond measure. They’re depicted as White Sea Deer, The Seal’s Dread, The Rider of Icebergs, The Whale’s Bane, and The Sailor of the Floe. Despite this, some cultures, like the Sami and Lapp, eschew the term “polar bear,” referring to them as God’s Dog or The Old Man in the Fur Cloak to avoid potential offense.

Inuit Reverence: Nanuk and Pihoqahiak

In Inuit communities, polar bears are highly regarded. They call them Nanuk or Pihoqahiak, signifying an Animal Worthy of Great Respect or The Ever-Wandering One, respectively. Similarly, the Ket of Siberia honor them as Gyp or Orqoi, translating to Grandfather or Stepfather.

Russian Literalism: Beliy Medved

In Russia, they keep it simple with “beliy medved,” which translates to means “White Bear.” Norwegians and Danes go for “Isbjorn,” which is basically “The Ice Bear.” However, in Eastern Greenland, they are named, “tornassuk,” meaning “The Master of Helping Spirits.”

Preserving the Giants: Conservation Urgency

The diverse names for polar bears across cultures not only highlight the animal’s widespread presence but also underscore its profound significance in various traditions and ecosystems. From the Inuit’s “Nanook” to the Sami’s “Isbjørn,” each name carries unique cultural meanings and reflects a deep connection to the environment these majestic creatures inhabit.

Understanding these names allows us to appreciate the rich tapestry of human interaction with nature and the shared reverence for one of the Arctic’s most iconic residents. By acknowledging and respecting these cultural perspectives, we can foster a greater sense of global unity in our efforts to protect and preserve polar bears for future generations.

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