Nanuq (Polar Bear)

Polar bears on the Yukon North Slope belong to the Southern Beaufort Sea population which extends from Point Barrow, Alaska to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.. Scientists have been studying these bears for several decades and are starting to understand the complex role they play in the marine Arctic ecosystem. But, Inuvialuit have been living and interacting with nanuq for countless generations and have come to understand a great deal about their life history, behaviour, and interactions. The recent report, Inuvialuit and Nanuq, aims to document this knowledge.

Different Types of Polar Bears

While nanuq generally refers to polar bears, Inuvialuit have a number of different words to describe and be more specific about these bears. 


Refers to a polar bear cub, while nurraiyaat refers to newborn cubs in the den.

Atauhimik ukiulik

This term is used to describe a one year old cub, while nanuaq is more generally a young polar bear.


This word is used for a full grown male polar bear.

Arnahaluq narranilu

An adult female polar bear without cubs is described using this term.

Polar Bear Research

How do we know how many polar bears there are? Researchers in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and Alaska are working together on a new way to get a population estimate. It's called genetic mark-recapture, which is must less invasive than the tradition approach of sedation and collaring. Curious how it works? Join Inuvialuk graduate student, Jessica Norris, as she and regional biologists head out on to the ice to survey North and South Beaufort polar bears. 

Polar Bear Podcast

The comprehensive traditional knowledge study, Inuvialuit and Nanuq, provides insight and much needed management guidance for polar bears in the Western Arctic. Check out our podcast on this landmark study and hear from a number of voices who helped to make it come to life.

Sharing Nanuq Knowledge

Nanuq has a special place in Inuvialuit culture and the Arctic ecosystem. A few years ago, we worked with our partners to document Inuvialuit knowledge about the incredible animal and its icy home. All of this knowledge is drawn together in a comprehensive report, but we wanted to make it more accessible. Check out our new graphic illustrating Inuvialuit knowledge of Nanuq!

A Story of Nanuq

Inuvialuit and Nanuq

Inuvialuit have been interacting with and hunting polar bears for as long as people can remember, sharing information, knowledge, and understanding of nanuq from one generation to the next. 

This sharing is key and provides the ecological and cultural underpinnings required for a safe and successful hunt or travel in polar bear country. As such, Inuvialuit traditional knowledge extends beyond polar bear biology to include ice characteristics, weather, polynyas, habitat preferences, seal behaviour and distribution, among other things.

The World of the Polar Bear

Ice, in all its dynamic forms, defines polar bear habitat, from pressure ridges and multi-year ice to polynyas and the floe edge. While Inuvialuit have spotted nanuq traveling inland on occasion, the majority of their time is spent in their marine home. 

"They have to have ice - the polar bear. Can't live without ice. The way they hunt that seal. The seal won't go to them. They have to go after the seal to get it. In order to get it, the've got to have ice. No ice: no food." 

- Aklavik Tradition Knowledge Holder, from Inuvialuit and Nanuq 

A Changing World

Starting in the late 1980's, Inuvialuit began to notice changes in the timing of freeze-up and break-up, number icebergs, shrinking multi-year ice, melting permafrost, new species of wildlife, and many other ecological factors.

While Inuvialuit have documented changes to ice conditions, wind patterns, and other ecological factors that can affect polar bears, they also emphasize that relationship between nanuq and it's environment is extremely complex. There are many things that contribute to the health and abundance of polar bears. 

The Importance of Polar Bears to Inuvialuit

Polar bears have always been of great cultural significance to Inuvialuit, featuring in many stories, both recent and passed down through generations. There continue to be many teachings and traditions, often relating to the considerable skill, knowledge, courage, and endurance required to hunt polar bears.

Nanuq also has economic importance to Inuvialuit. Depending on the community, hunting can represent a main source of income to a family.

Read the full study!

The full report, Inuvialuit and Nanuq - A Polar Bear Traditional Knowledge Study, is accessible through our Resource Library.