Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Fur and skin

A polar bear's fur is white (individual hairs are transparent like the water droplets that make up a cloud) and provides good camouflage and insulation. It may yellow with age. The fur acts as miniature greenhouses, and turns sunlight into heat, which is absorbed by the bear's black skin. Stiff hairs on the pads of its paws provide insulation and traction on ice.

Unlike other Arctic mammals, polar bears do not shed their coat for a darker shade in the summer. It was once conjectured that the hollow hairs of a polar bear coat acted as fiber-optic tubes to conduct light to its black skin, where it could be absorbed - a theory disproved by recent studies.[7] The thick undercoat does, however, insulate the bears: they overheat at temperatures above 10 °C (50 °F), and are nearly invisible under infrared photography; only their breath and muzzles can be easily seen.[8] When kept in captivity in warm, humid conditions, it is not unknown for the fur to turn a pale shade of green. This is due to algae growing in the guard hairs - in unusually warm conditions, the hollow tubes provide an excellent home for algae. Whilst the algae is harmless to the bears, it is often a worry to the zoos housing them, and affected animals are sometimes washed in a salt solution, or mild peroxide bleach to make the fur white again.

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