If there’s one thing that really bugs me way more than it reasonably should, it’s pictures like this — polar bears and penguins together in the same habitat. It’s just as bad as people saying lions live in the jungle. That’s not how biology works, people!
For those of you who have issues remembering that polar bears live at the North Pole and penguins live at the South Pole, fear not! I have a ridiculously complex way of remembering!
The basic premise is that “arctic” means “full of bears” while “Antarctica” means “land without bears.” In Greek, “arctos” means “bear.” Naturally, when paired with the prefix “ant” meaning “not”, it means “no bears”. Simple, right?
But here’s where it get complicated. The species which bears (no pun intended) the scientific name Ursus arctos is not actually the polar bear. It’s the brown bear. “Ursa” is Latin for “bear”, so whoever named the brown bear, “Bear bear” was not too creative. The scientific name for the polar bear is Ursus maritimus, meaning “sea bear” since it is the only species of bear which spends significant amounts of time in the water. You might recognize the word “ursa” from Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Big Bear and Little Bear constellations (also called the Big Dipper and Little Dipper). Other notable members of the Ursidae family include the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetianus), which sometimes looks like it has the bat symbol on its chest. No, it’s not officially called Batbear. But if it were, it would be Ursus chiroptera. And it would be awesome. There’s also Ursus inopinatus (“unexpected bear”) which may or be not be real, but either way, it’s extinct.
Pandas are a whole different genus of bears, called Ailuropoda, meaning “cat foot,” which is weird. The red panda isn’t a panda at all; it’s its own funky little thing and closer to a weasel than anything else. Koalas aren’t bears either, even though they’re called Phascolarctidae, meaning “pouch bear”. They don’t really have any living relatives, but wombats are sort of an awkward third cousin.
So next time you see some ridiculously cheerful little holiday decoration with polar bears and and penguins wearing scarves and holding hands while they ice skate together, you’ll know it’s biologically incorrect.
Because polar bears and penguins don’t even have hands.