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White Kermode or Spirit Bear: Official Mammal of B.C.

Spirit Bears in Klemtu, British Columbia

Spirit Bears in Klemtu, British Columbia

The Beautiful 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 animals are so unusual that they might be mistaken for polar bears that have lost their way.

The beautiful 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 government's preference is for the name "British Columbia" to be abbreviated as B.C. when referring to the province and BC when it's part of the name of an organization, such as the Royal BC Museum. Not everyone follows this procedure.

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. Kermode (1874–1946) was in charge of the museum in the early 1900s. The museum is located in Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia.

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 video creators in this article 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 a particular animal's behaviour.

Genetic Cause of Light Hair in the Subspecies

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

Great Bear Rainforest Facts

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.

Map of British Columbia (the white areas in the map)

Map of British Columbia (the white areas in the map)

Interesting 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 particular 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 Facts

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 are 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 increase 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

Studying the Animal

Unfortunately, in July 2020, researchers announced that the spirit bear is not as common as has been believed and that more efforts are needed to protect it. Scientists are attempting to study Kermode bears without disturbing them.

One technique that the researchers use is to collect hair deposited when a bear of any colour rubs its body against a wire fence that they’ve erected. The wire used is harmless and is often seen by a bear as a good place to get a scratch. The researchers attract bears to the fence by placing strong-smelling salmon or other material beside it.

The hair and the bear genes in the attached cells are studied in a laboratory. The study may enable the researchers to discover how common the allele for white hair is in the local population.

Saving the Forest and the Spirit 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 with unknown consequences, 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.

The B.C. government has banned the hunting of black bears in the territories of the Kitasoo/Xai'xais and Gitga'at First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest.

— CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, July 2022)

A Potentially Important Announcement

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.

A relatively recent decision by the BC government shown above could be very helpful. Some of the black bears in the area that is mentioned will very likely carry the gene for white hair. The white-haired gene, the bears, and their habitat are worth protecting.


© 2019 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 02, 2020:

I appreciate your comment, Denise. I hope you have a great week.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on February 02, 2020:

What a valuable and fascinating animal. I actually thought they were albinos. Good to know. This is so informative.



Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 29, 2019:

Hi, Devika. Bears are interesting animals. I think that spirit bears are especially interesting as well as beautiful. Thanks for commenting.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on July 29, 2019:

Beautiful animals and you wrote an informative hub about them. I like the photos. Bears behave in the most unusual ways.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 19, 2019:

Hi, Linda. Thank you very much for the comment. I think the bears are beautiful and intriguing.

Linda Chechar from Arizona on July 19, 2019:

I've never heard of the Kermode bear. Your article is extremely informative. I've learned a great deal about the spirit bears.They're absolutely breathtaking.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 30, 2019:

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.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 30, 2019:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 26, 2019:

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

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on May 26, 2019:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 23, 2019:

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

Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on May 23, 2019:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 22, 2019:

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

Matthew Scherer from Corpus Christi on May 22, 2019:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 20, 2019:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 20, 2019:

I appreciate your kindness, Yusrat.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 20, 2019:

Thank you very much, Frankie.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 20, 2019:

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!

Yusrat Sadia Nailat from Bangladesh on May 20, 2019:

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




Frankie Vanderhoff from Lower Saxony, Germany on May 20, 2019:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 19, 2019:

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

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on May 19, 2019:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 19, 2019:

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

manatita44 from london on May 19, 2019:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 19, 2019:

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 from london on May 19, 2019:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 18, 2019:

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 Woods from Houston, Texas on May 18, 2019:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 18, 2019:

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.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 18, 2019:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 18, 2019:

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

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 18, 2019:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2019:

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

Liz Westwood from UK on May 17, 2019:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2019:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2019:

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.

Adrienne Farricelli on May 17, 2019:

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 on May 17, 2019:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2019:

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 from USA on May 17, 2019:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2019:

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 from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 17, 2019:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 17, 2019:

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

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on May 17, 2019:

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.