Polar Bears – Nature’s Astounding Innovations

By Shlomo Maital


   Nature is our supreme innovator. Over many thousands of years, random mutations occur, most of which fail, but a few succeed in helping species to survive to procreate – and became permanently embedded and reproduced in their genes. This evolutionary innovation is slow but highly effective. Variations of it work in human innovation, too. A study in Israel shows that of some 10,000 startups launched between 1999 and 2008, only about 4 %, or around 450, are still alive, growing and profitable. As with evolution, ideas are tossed into the air, and only a few prove truly viable. Entrepreneurs that I spoke with believe firmly that to get 440 viable firms, you do need to launch 10,000.

     Consider the Polar Bear. It is currently endangered by global warming and its numbers are falling.   This is a great tragedy. The polar bear is one of Nature’s supreme innovations.

     How does the Polar Bear survive in the long Arctic nights, in freezing cold?

     Its fur. Its fur hairs are actually not white (they just appear so, because they lack any color).   Each hair is transparent, and has a key property – it reflects (rather than absorbs) all wave lengths of light, including infrared. Why is that helpful? The body of the polar bear radiates heat, as infrared radiation. But when body heat reaches the transparent hairs, it is reflected back into the body, rather than radiated off into the air and lost forever. No warmer fur coat exists.

       Has anyone thought of creating a synthetic fur jacket or sweater, on this principle?

       What else has Nature innovated?

       Active hibernation.   Bears hibernate in winter, when the food supply declines. Hibernation is a state where the body cools, heartbeat slows and energy consumption is minimal. Polar bears hibernate in summer, when food is very scarce…. But remain awake. How? Their body metabolism goes into hibernation mode, and energy is recycled to maintain muscle tone – but still the polar bears are awake, lest they miss some food, however scarce.   As far as we know, this amazing stage of wakeful hibernation is unique to polar bears.

       Nature indeed is an incredible innovator, and evolution is its mechanism.

       If we allow polar bears to decline and perhaps become extinct, due to global warming and the melting of Arctic ice, it will be an enormous crime to future generations, who will not get to know this remarkable animal.