The spirit bear (also known as the kermode bear) is a rare white phase of the black bear. And in the Great Bear Rainforest, in British Columbia, Canada, the spirit bear is found in high concentration – unique in the world.
Here are some neat things about this creamy-white animal that is catching our attention now — but has been catching salmon in the inky-green rainforest for thousands of years!
1. Spirit bears are not albinos! Albinos have an absence of pigmentation, but spirit bears have pigmentation: their eyes are dark and when you see one, you see that the skin on their foot pads is dark, too.
2. It’s genetic. Why are spirit bears white? It’s due to a single recessive nulceotide replacement in one of their genes. Think of it like blue eyes in humans, but extremely rare. In order to be white, a cub must receive the same recessive information in that gene from both parents.
3. There is more than meets the eye. Even black bears in white bear territory carry the white gene – just as brown-eyed people can carry the blue-eyed gene in humans. And they can pass it on to their offspring. In fact more than half of black bears in some parts of this rainforest carry the spirit bear genetic makeup.
4. So a black mum can have a white cub? Yup. And vice-versa.
5. What’s the advantage to being a white bear? Scientists have an idea. All of the bears in the Great Bear Rainforest have a heavy reliance on salmon. It provides about 80% of their annual protein. Scientists think that spirit bears standing above rivers fishing are more “hidden” than black bears. Why? Because to the salmon, looking up for danger, the spirit bear is light like the sky. Whereas a black bear would loom dark and foreboding against a light sky. Studies have shown that in daylight hours, spirit bears are more successful at catching salmon than black bears!
6. How did they find that out? If you are thinking it must have involved scientists in bear suits… you are right! Goofy as it sounds, it was actually very scientifically done. One of the key researchers in this is Dr. Tom Reimchen, from the University of Victoria. You can learn more about him on his website.
7. The spirit bear lives in the islands of the Great Bear Rainforest. These islands are covered in cedar, hemlock and fir trees and pierced by creeks and streams where the bears fish in the autumn. We think they may be rarely seen on the mainland and are mostly found on the islands because grizzly bears (brown bears) frequent the mainland fishing areas, and grizzly bears always dominate. So grizzlies would keep the white bears on the islands.
8. What does kermode mean, anyway? Kermode is part of the scientific name for this animal – the part that denotes this “phase” of the black bear. It is from a man called Francis Kermode, an employee of British Columbia’s provincial museum, who helped scientists obtain pelts of the animal to study. Spirit bear is a name from the First Nations of the area, who have lived with these animals as long as both have been on the coast, and hold them in high regard. There is even a story that they were created to remind people of the ice age.
9. Are spirit bears protected? Well, interesting question. Yes, but not fully. We need to make sure their supply of salmon and their rainforest ecosystem is protected. But beyond that, it is illegal to hunt a white bear in British Columbia. But the black bears that carry the white gene and can create spirit cubs can be shot. Raincoast Conservation Foundation is working toward that by buying the commercial trophy hunting licences in the area. To find out more, visit their website: www.raincoast.org.
10. How can I see a spirit bear? Your best option is to travel through BC’s Great Bear Rainforest by ship. In fact, several responsible tourism businesses, including one owned by my family, have offered spirit bear viewing trips for over 20 years! Taking such a trip helps protect the bears, by providing a conservation-based economy (responsibly viewing the animals).
A white bear is such a surprise in the dark rainforest world. Now you have an inkling as to why it might be there, and the fascinating questions it makes us ask.