Why Can’t Polar Bears and Penguins Be Friends?

By Kali Shulklapper  |  Jul 2, 2016
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Welcome to New York City, home of Casper’s infamous subway illustrations. To entertain sleepy riders on their commute to work, we tell comedic stories situated above their seats. Some star bacon and eggs, some show a horse hitting the hay, and some depict penguin and polar bears celebrating bedtime.

Sean Mooney, the curator of the Arctic collection at the Menil Collection museum in Houston, was riding the subway when he noticed the penguins and polar bears sharing the snow. We talked to him to learn about why this happy bedtime tale would be impossible in real life:

What are the inaccuracies of our subway illustration?
Penguins live only in the Antarctic (south pole), not the Arctic (north pole). The opposite is true for polar bears. The penguins suggest that the setting is Antarctica, but the polar bear and igloo suggest we are in the Arctic.

Igloos are historically made by the Inuit, Iñupiat and Yup’ik peoples of the Arctic and like polar bears, they do not co-exist with penguins.

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Is this a common misconception? Where else have you seen it?
There is a famous children’s book by Margret and H.A. Rey, who created Curious George, which is called “Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World.” The main character, Whiteblack the Penguin, goes off in his kayak on an adventure in search of food. Among his friends is a polar bear. The Inuit people in Canada made a parody film called  “Qallunaat: Why White People are Funny”, and one scene depicts an Inuit reading the Whiteblack book and crossing out with a marker all the drawings showing the penguin and the polar bear together.

Why can’t penguins and polar bears coexist?
Aside from the fact that they live on opposite poles, the bears would likely eat the penguins. When they do happen to co-exist, such as at the zoo, they are kept in separate cages.

What do you know about these animals’ sleep patterns?
I once presumed polar bears hibernate, and that I would be safe walking around alone on the frozen Bering Sea in February. Apparently they do not, and I was at high risk of being eaten.

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What are the main differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic?
No humans live on Antarctica, except for the weather station people. Humans have inhabited the Arctic for thousands of years, perhaps going back into Paleolithic times.

Is an igloo a good sleeping environment? What’s it like to sleep in one?
Although igloos are still in common use, they are generally restricted to temporary shelters while traveling, not as permanent structures. They were never permanent structures to begin with, but rather assembled quickly during emergencies or for winter travel.

Sleeping in an igloo, in the traditional sense, certainly offers a great deal of protection from the cold, and in the context of the Arctic environment, is an excellent place to sleep. They’re not likely to collapse under the weight of snow that continues to fall on top of them. Because they are relatively small inside, they are easily heated by a stone lamp and the presence of human bodies. Wrapped in animal skin and fur blankets, and human company, one is sufficiently warm and comfortable, I imagine.

Recently, there has been a fad in Northern Europe for “ice hotels,” where guests can sleep in an igloo-like environment, using a solid block of ice as a bed, covered in fur and having an open fireplace, and plenty of vodka. None of this, of course, is in any way an approximation of sleeping in a real igloo.


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