What Does a Polar Bear Smell Like?

©. Zhiltsov Alexandr

In which we tackle one of life's more pressing queries.

In this wacky world so full of wonders, there are many questions to be asked. Why is the sky blue? What came first, the chicken or the egg? What do polar bears smell like? OK, maybe that last one isn't on the top of everyone's list of essential mysteries, but I for one really have pondered this.

In my mind, they smell like part dog/part blizzard – but of course, that's coming from the the brain of a city mouse living in Brooklyn. However, Dr. Thea Bechshoft, a polar bear expert based in Aarhus, Denmark, has a much more solid grasp on the topic.

When asked what do polar bears smell like, Bechshoft says that it is something she had wondered about for years, "so, the first time I was close to a sedated polar bear, I immediately buried my face in its fur to take a good whiff." YES!

Surprisingly, Bechshoft says that there isn't much dog to it, or cat, horse, or sheep. Rather, the scent is very subtle. She says,

If I were to compare it to anything (and I’ve given this quite a bit of thought), it would be ...hmm ... imagine you’ve been on a long walk along the ocean on a really windy day. The smell of your clean, non-perfumed, windblown hair when you come back inside is the closest I can come to describing the way a polar bear smells, believe it or not.

Isn't that wonderful? But also, isn't that strange? Why don't polar bears smell more animal-y?

Bechshoft explains that the polar bear habitat is comprised of water, ice, and snow, and as such, it's a very neutral-smelling environment in the first place. Since they do not have territories to defend, they don't need to scent-mark their turf; "they don’t have a need to have a strong odor themselves and don’t roll in smelly things like dogs do," she says.

That said, it's not all fresh-beach-hair scent all the time. A polar bear in the midst of eating a seal may smell of that endeavor, while an adult female emerging from the den with a newborn may have a stronger smell as well. But in general, a polar bear should smell pure as the driven snow in which it lives.