2018 was a whirlwind. Meetings. Pitches. Travel. Learning to do audio on YouTube. Turning our apartment into a wall-to-wall Post-it note storyboard. You see, we’re trying to create the first prototype of Nature Labs by fall 2019 and, as a result, we had fewer days in the field than ever before. Yet 2018 was good to us. We made our time in the Rocky Mountains count like never before, narrowing our search to specific individuals and landscapes we’ve come to know well while working to create the stories that will underpin Nature Labs.
In order of date, please enjoy a behind the scenes look at the making of Nature Labs and what became our top wildlife encounters from 2018.
The mixed black bear family
In June, we were incredibly fortunate to document a mixed black bear family unlike any we’ve ever observed. What made them so special?
One cub was double the size of the other two. Yes, runts happen, but the size discrepancy is too big for it to be chalked up to malnourished cubs, especially given the time of year we found them.
One of our theories – and researchers we work with agree it’s possible – is that the sow adopted a cub from another bear (most likely a relative). Sound impossible? Well, consider that it’s been documented several times before with Grand Teton grizzly bear 610 adopting cubs from 399, her mom. In fact, another Yellowstone grizzly sow also adopted her mother’s cubs. Scientists believe that the declining health of the elder sows meant that they couldn’t raise the cubs successfully, forcing them to lean on sows from previous litters (and showcasing the strong familial ties between bears, disrupting many commonly held beliefs about bruins).
Our other theory is that the black bear sow mated two years in a row and kept both sets of cubs. This is highly unusual, as sows run their cubs off prior to mating – or a male bear will kill cubs to advance mating behaviour. What might have happened in this scenario? The sow might have encountered a boar and treed her cub for its protection, but felt the need to mate to ensure her cub’s survival. We haven’t been able to find documentation of this happening elsewhere, but we’re searching.
Then there is the bear family’s other remarkable feature: their colouration. The sow is cinnamon and she has two black cubs and one white cub. How does that work? Well, we’ve written about the genetics of both white and blond black bears before, but we will refresh your memory.
True Kermode or 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 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.
This particular white bear is not a Kermode bear, but might be the product of the now dormant gene that was once connected to the now-famed subspecies. Unlike blond black bears we’ve seen in Waterton and other parts of the Canadian Rockies, this sighting is special and rare. And to have three cubs of potentially different ages? Well it’s a mystery we’re working to unravel and a case that is almost unprecedented. It’s encounters like this one that remind us how much our society still doesn’t know about nature, offering hope that we will find a better way yet to coexist with the creatures that help sustain the systems that sustain us.
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