This beautiful blonde black bear that we found in Waterton National Park in May might resemble a white Kermode, spirit bear, or ghost bear, but it’s not a member of the celebrated subspecies. In fact, there have been many reports in recent years of light coloured black bears in the Canadian Rockies – including a ‘white’ bear found in Kananaskis this spring – that have been wrongly identified as spirit bears.
True spirit bears are a genetically unique subspecies of the black bear that are found only on Canada’s west coast. In this area, one out of every ten black bears are born with a unique gene that makes their fur white.
During Simon’s successful two decade-long, Spirit Bear Youth Coalition-led campaign to help save the bear, he was able to work with government and independent scientists to help identify the history of the Kermode gene. One of the interesting facts discovered through this research was that a white fur gene once existed throughout North America thousands of years ago, but gradually disappeared as snow and ice became less prevalent across the continent.
In the Great Bear Rainforest, the white fur provides an adaptive advantage over other bears, as the spirit bear is more camouflaged in the rapids of streams where the salmon spawn. As a result, the gene not only persisted, but evolved the genetics of both the black and white bears in the region, creating the unique subspecies.
In addition to albino bears (of which the spirit bear is not), it is still possible for a white black bear to be born anywhere in North America. Though exceedingly rare (it’s the result of a now mostly dormant gene reappearing), it’s essentially a genetic blip – meaning its unlikely to reoccur through reproduction and that it no longer has any relation to the modern Kermode gene.
Yet for every rare case of a true white (non-albino, non-Kermode) bear occurring in places like Manitoba or Pennsylvania, there are dozens of falsely reported ‘white’ bears that are actually just beautiful – if not genetically unique – colour phases.
Just some food for thought…I mean, grass for thought if you are this bear.