White Kermode or Spirit Bear: Official Mammal of British Columbia
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 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 a particular animal's behaviour. They recognize when an animal is becoming tense.
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.
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 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.
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".
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).
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.
- Facts about the Great Bear Rainforest from the Government of British Columbia
- Spirit Bear entry from The Canadian Encyclopedia
- Information about the bears from the Smithsonian Magazine
- An article about filming spirit bears from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
- Bears enter torpor but don't hibernate from the Science World museum in Vancouver
- Preserving the Great Bear Rainforest from The Globe and Mail newspaper
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Linda Crampton