White Kermode or Spirit Bear: Official Mammal of British Columbia

Updated on May 17, 2019
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

Spirit Bears in Klemtu, British Columbia
Spirit Bears in Klemtu, British Columbia | Source

Spirit or Ghost Bear

The Kermode bear is a subspecies of the black bear that lives in British Columbia. Around ten to thirty percent of Kermode bears are white or cream instead of black. The percentage depends on the location. The pale and sometimes ghostly appearance of the animals has given rise to the alternate names spirit bear and ghost bear. The light animal is so unusual that it might be mistaken for a polar bear that has lost its way.

The spirit bear is important in the culture and history of the local indigenous people and is the official mammal of British Columbia. For me, it symbolizes the impressive rainforest on the north and central coast of the province. This habitat is known as the Great Bear Rainforest. Its size gives it global importance.

The Kermode Bear

The black bear has the scientific name Ursus americanus. The scientific name of the Kermode bear is Ursus americanus kermodei. The animal is named after Francis Kermode, the first director of the Royal BC Museum, which is why its common name is capitalized.

The term "Kermode bear" refers to the whole subspecies, so it includes both the black and the white animals. It's often used for only the white animals, however. I like to use the term "spirit bear" to refer to the light-coloured animals, as many local people do.

Some of the filmakers in the videos below get quite close to spirit bears, even allowing for the magnification provided by their lenses. This is definitely not advisable for most of us. The photographers are familiar with the bears that they are filming and understand the significance of the animals' behaviour.

Genetic Cause of Light Hair in the Bear

Spirit bears have white or cream fur but dark eyes and a dark nose, so they aren't albinos. Their colouration is caused by a different method from albinism.

Genes exist in the form of alleles, or gene variants. Alleles are paired and are either dominant or recessive. The allele for black hair in bears in dominant and the allele for white hair is recessive. Dominant alleles overrule recessive ones.

  • If a bear has a dominant allele for hair colour paired with another dominant one, it has black hair.
  • If the animal has a dominant allele paired with a recessive one, it will still have black hair. The dominant allele prevents the recessive one from doing its job. The bear is said to be a carrier for the recessive allele and may pass it to its offspring.
  • If the animal has two recessive alleles, it will have white hair.

A bear gets one allele for hair colour from its mother and the other from its father. If it gets an allele for white hair from both of its parents, it will be a spirit bear. The allele for white hair is less common than the one for black hair. Nevertheless, the white animals persist in the population.

Though spirit bears are light in colour, their colour may not be same everywhere on their body. The differences are sometimes said to be due to dirt in their fur. It's possible that there is an additional factor or factors influencing their hair colour, however.

A spirit bear in the Great Bear Rainforest
A spirit bear in the Great Bear Rainforest | Source

The Great Bear Rainforest

Spirit bears are found in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia. This habitat is filled with old growth forest and extends through the islands and fjords of the north and central coast of the province. The north coast region of British Columbia isn't located in the northern part of the province due to the southern extension of Alaska, as can be seen in the map below.

The large, northern Canadian island in the map (which is actually an archipelago) is called Haida Gwaii. The large, southern island is Vancouver island. The Great Bear Rainforest extends from the east of Haida Gwaii to the east of northern Vancouver island. It's located on the many smaller islands in the area and on the mainland beside the many fjords located in the region.

According to the Government of British Columbia, the forest has a total size of 6.4 million hectares (or 15.8 million acres). It's approximately the size of Ireland and holds about one quarter of the world's intact coastal temperate rainforest.

The greatest concentration of spirit bears is found on Princess Royal Island and Gribbell Island. The restricted gene pool on the islands may have allowed the bears to become more common there.

Legends of Creation

White Kermode bears were once considered to be merely a legend of the Gitga'at and Kitasoo First Nations people. The First Nations are the indigenous people of British Columbia. The legend is related to Raven, an important and powerful character in First Nations stories who has creative powers. According to the legend, when the glaciers in the area retreated, Raven made the area green and filled it with life. He made one in ten black bears white to remind him of the snow and ice that had vanished and created the Great Bear Rainforest to keep the bears safe.

A slightly different legend of the Tsimshian people says that Raven reached an agreement with the black bear. He promised that the bear would stay safe if he was allowed to change one out of ten them into a white bear to remind them of the hardships provided by the snow and ice.

The size of the spirit bear population in the Great Bear Rainforest is unknown. Estimates are generally in the range of 100 to 300 animals. It's unknown whether the population is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same.

Life of the Spirit Bear

Spirit bears are solitary, except when a female is travelling with her cubs. The male's territory contains the territories of several females. Though the animals vary considerably in size, males are generally bigger than females.

The animals have an omnivorous diet. They eat berries and other fruits, roots, grass, carrion, intertidal animals such as clams and mussels, salmon, and deer and moose fawns.

Researchers have found that spirit bears are 30% more successful at hunting salmon during the day than the darker animals. This is thought to be because from a salmon's point of view the light animal is better camouflaged against the sky.

The bears eat so much salmon and drag so much of their prey away from the water and into the forest that the remains of their meals are an important fertilizer for the soil. Researchers have found that this fertilization has an effect on the plant types in the area as well as their growth.

The photographer in the video below describes how he got amazingly close to a spirit bear. It's very important to note that the local people knew that the bear was unusually gentle and had told the photographer where the animal could be found. Bears can sometimes be dangerous animals.

Reproduction

The bears mate in summer. The embryo or embryos don't undergo implantation (attachment to the lining of the uterus) until late fall, however. The female produces one to three cubs in her den during the winter. While they are in the den, the cubs spend their time nursing and sleeping. They stay in the den until their mother decides to leave it.

The youngsters are weaned when they around eight months old but may stay with their mother for as long as eighteen months. They reach reproductive maturity at three to four years of age. The bears sometimes live for as long as twenty-five years.

The winter period of inactivity in bears is usually known as torpor or a winter sleep instead of hibernation. Some biologists refer to bears as "super hibernators".

Winter Denning

The bears are inactive during winter. The animal's heart, breathing, and metabolic rate decrease, its temperature decreases slightly, and it doesn't release urine or feces. Its state is not as extreme as hibernation, however. In fact, the female wakes up to give birth to her cubs during the winter and then returns to sleep. Researchers have discovered that the female wakes up occasionally after the cubs have been born. In addition, she awakens quickly if she's threatened.

The bears may dig their own den, but they often sleep in holes in tree stumps or in dens dug by another animal. They line the den with branches and leaves. They can reportedly stay in their winter torpor for as long as seven months. This ability is helped by an interesting feature of the animal's body.

A bear creates protein from urea while it's in a torpor. Its body breaks down stored fat to create the urea. Mammals normally excrete urea in water as urine. During winter, however, bears use the nitrogen in the urea to create protein instead of adding it to water and then urinating. Though the animal loses body fat during the winter, it may actually increases its lean body mass (mass due to muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones, and organs).

The Great Bear Rainforest and a humpback whale
The Great Bear Rainforest and a humpback whale | Source

Saving the Forest and the Bear

Spirit bears are held in great esteem by the local people, who are working to protect them. Eco-tourism is becoming popular in the bear's habitat. The tours are led by local people who respect the animals and make sure that are aren't disturbed by visitors. It's illegal to hunt a white bear anywhere in the forest.

There are some concerns about the animal's future. They have been recent reports of grizzly bears seen in traditional spirit bear habitat, for example. This is a relatively new development whose consequences are unknown, but the presence of the powerful grizzly bear is worrying.

Another problem that worries some people is logging. While the forest is officially a preservation area, restricted and managed logging occurs in specific areas. The battle between conservationists and loggers has been a long one. The government praises itself as the preserver of the forest and advertises the area as having global importance, yet logging still continues. The current deal for mixing conservation and logging was created by the government and was established in 2016. This deal may be as good as it gets.

I think it's important to preserve the Great Bear Rainforest for many reasons. One of them is because it's the home of the spirit bear. Spirit bears are occasionally found in other parts of North America where Ursus americanus lives, but nowhere else on Earth has as many animals as coastal British Columbia. The animal and its habitat are worth protecting.

References

© 2019 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Mary. They are beautiful animals. I'd love to get my own photos of them. Hopefully I will one day, as long as it can be done without upsetting the bears.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      3 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

      I have seen these spirit bears only in pictures and would love to see them in their natural habitat.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Genna. Some of the photographers do get surprisingly close to the bears. The animals and the forest are impressive!

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 

      4 weeks ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Oh my goodness -- that camera crew is so close to the bear...but he seems far more interested in the salmon. And the Great Bear Rainforest is huge -- over 15 million acres is amazing, and the perfect habitat for these gorgeous creatures, except for the loggers and grizzlies. Thanks so much for this fascinating article, Linda.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Eman. I'm glad that you enjoyed the article.

    • Emmy ali profile image

      Eman Abdallah Kamel 

      4 weeks ago from Egypt

      A very interesting and educational article about the Kermode bear. I enjoyed reading it so much.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Matthew. It's an unusual animal.

    • Matthew Scherer profile image

      Matthew Scherer 

      4 weeks ago from Corpus Christi

      Very informative! I had never heard of a spirit bear before!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Heidi. I hope the bears have a good future. They are unique and lovely animals.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I appreciate your kindness, Yusrat.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Frankie.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      5 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      They sure do look like polar bears! I hope conservation efforts do allow them to survive. It sounds like they're a significant part of the ecosystem. Thanks for sharing this beautiful bear's story with us!

    • yusrat19 profile image

      Yusrat Sadia Nailat 

      5 weeks ago from Bangladesh

      I always enjoy reading your articles, Alicia. They are always special and spectacular in some ways.

      Thankyou

      Sincerely,

      Yusrat

    • Frankie Vanderhoff profile image

      Frankie Vanderhoff 

      5 weeks ago from Lower Saxony, Germany

      Wow! Absolutely loved this article! Some very insteresting facts you have here!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Nithya. I hope the forest is preserved, too. It's a beautiful habitat as well as an important one. I appreciate your visit.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      5 weeks ago from Dubai

      I enjoyed reading and getting to know so many interesting facts about the spirit bear. I hope the Great Bear Rainforest is preserved, thank you for sharing this article.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      There are certainly many changes happening at the moment. It's an interesting period in time!

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      5 weeks ago from london

      Now you mention it, I seem to have read this somewhere … the term, I mean. We are the 21st century with its phenomenal changes, so life knows best. Thank you.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, Manatita. Black (and white) bears are considered to be potentially dangerous where I live, though not as dangerous as grizzlies.

      The indigenous people in British Columbia were once known as Indians, but the term First Nations is used now.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      5 weeks ago from london

      Beautiful, breathtaking scenery in your videos. The guy in the second has such a sweet smile, so I figure that the white bear can be considered as one of nature's healers, according to my Hub.

      They look powerful, majestic and while you sort of hinted that one should not get too close, they don't seem all that dangerous. Great hunting skills! The gene story is an amazing one too!

      Who are the indigenous people? Red Indians or similar? We had Caribs and Arawaks when the French came to Grenada and wiped them all out. I know hardly anything about them. Fascinating work, Alicia.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Peggy. I'm glad you found the videos interesting. I think the spirit bear is a beautiful animal, too. I hope biologists learn more about the bears and are able to help keep them safe.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      5 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for introducing us to the White Kermode aka Spirit Bear. It is a beautiful animal and one worth preserving. Those videos were very interesting to view.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. The white bear is less common than the black one, so it may not be widely known outside of British Columbia. It's an interesting animal.

      I hope you have a great weekend.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      How is it possible that I have never heard of the Kermode? Thanks for filling in a rather large gap in my local knowledge, Linda!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Pamela. I think that bears in general are interesting animals, but spirit bears are intriguing.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      These bears are fascinating, and I had never heard of them. I loved watching the bear catch fish. Their physiological state during the winter is so interesting as the females are not exactly hybernating when feeding her cubs. I am so glad they are protected by the people. I thoroughly enjoyed this article Linda.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing the information, Liz. I hadn't heard about the situation that you describe. It sounds sad.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      5 weeks ago from UK

      I hadn't come across these species of bear before. This is an interesting and very informative article. In the UK, sadly the only bears are in captivity or of the toy variety. I was interested to read a news report recently about bears rescued from Eastern Europe and then released into the wild in France. Unfortunately they have wandered over the border into Spain and are causing problems for farmers and their animals.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit, Adrienne. I think the bear is interesting in many ways. I hope scientists learn more about it.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Lora. I love the name spirit bear, too. It seems very appropriate. I hope the bear and its surroundings exist for a long time. Thank you very much for the comment.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      5 weeks ago

      Interesting information. I never heard about spirit bears before, there is always something new to learn about! I enjoyed watching the video. It's so fascinating how these bears make better hunters compared to the darker bears.

    • Lora Hollings profile image

      Lora Hollings 

      5 weeks ago

      What beautiful animals and this place must be like a sort of garden of Eden away from humans and so full of life! I love the name the Spirit Bear and I hope that these bears will be around for generations to come. I totally agree with you on the importance of preserving the Great Bear Rainforest and hope that the government will do all that it can to save this habitat and these awesome animals! Fascinating article, Linda. Thank you for sharing.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Flourish. I hope the logging industry is kept under strict control and that the spirit bear and the rainforest continue to exist.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      5 weeks ago from USA

      What a wonderful article full of fascinating information on this gorgeous animal. I hope conservationists are able to stave off the logging industry so these animals can continue to flourish.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I would love to explore the Olympic Peninsula. I hope such beautiful and important habitats are preserved. Your comparision of humans to termites is very apt, Mel. Thank you for commenting.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      5 weeks ago from San Diego California

      You are always introducing fascinating new creatures to me. I was just in the Hoh rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. I don't think these bears go that far, but these are hauntingly beautiful habitats. I really hope humanity can preserve them. We are like termites in wanting to chew down every piece of wood that is standing. Great work.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I agree, Lorelei. I appreciate your visit and comment.

    • Ladymermaid profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      5 weeks ago from Canada

      Living in B.C. I am so very proud of the natural beauty we have here. The spirit bear is truly one of our more unique animals and one we should be proud to know it calls home here. Hopefully we will never lose sight of the importance all species have within Canada and our global communities.

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