The Polar Bear’s Nose

Photograph of the polar bear skeleton in the Museum of Zoology

Sue Kearsey, Visitor Engagement volunteer, writes:

Did you know that you can tell where a polar bear lives just by looking up its nose? Not a live polar bear, of course, as that’s much too dangerous – polar bears see humans as food. But in the museum you can look up the nose of a polar bear quite safely. And it’s really weird – full of a network of bone, very different from the nose of the hippo which is mostly a big empty tube. So why is it different?

In real life this bony part, called the turbinates, is covered with a thin layer of skin. And the skin is full of blood vessels carrying warm blood – all the better for warming the air as it enters the body. The air that enters the nose gets very close to the brain, and cooling the brain is really dangerous – a temperature drop of less than 2 °C in a human brain causes confusion which can quickly lead to death.

Our turbinates create four air passages through the nose. The polar bear needs many more passages because the air entering its nose is so much colder. This is an adaptation to living where it’s really cold – an adaptation that you can’t normally see.

When you next get a chance to visit the museum, have a look up the polar bear’s nose. And then maybe look up some other animal noses – it might help you work out where they live.

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