The Mysterious Spirit Bears of British Columbia

The Mysterious Spirit Bears of British Columbia

Posted by Michael Starbuck on 3rd Aug 2015

If you've ever been hiking in the backcountry on the Pacific Coast of British Columbia, you've probably seen a wealth of natural wonders, but if you were particularly lucky, you may have spotted a striking flash of white moving through the trees.

Hopefully you didn't panic for fear that a polar bear had miraculously wandered thousands of miles into the Canadian wilderness. In truth, you had the good fortune to spy one of this region's true treasures – a spirit bear. So named because of their legendary culture status to the indigenous people of the region, the Tsimshian, spirit bears are scientifically known as Kermode bears. However, they are actually a subspecies of the American black bear, with one notable difference – a completely white coat.

The unbelievable diversity of life on this planet is caused by genetic variations and millions of generations of natural selection and evolution, but rarely are such distinct variations so beautifully apparent to the naked eye. Scientists believe that spirit bears' stark white color is due to a single recessive gene that has managed to become quite prominent in the gene pool of the region. Due to the area's geographical isolation from other black bear populations, the recessive gene appears much more often than normal – approximately 1 in 10 black bears are born with white fur, while in other black bear habitats, the likelihood of a cub popping out white is roughly 1 in a million.

At present, scientists estimate that there are over 500 spirit bears in the region, including about 20% concentrated on Princess Royal Island. While scientists have provided a valid explanation for the bears' exceptional appearance, the indigenous people have a much different explanation. In their oral tradition, legend has it that "Raven" made 1 in every 10 bears white to remind people that this land had once been completely covered by glaciers, as a way to instill respect for the natural world around them.

While recessive genes are often associated with negative mutations and are often worked out of the gene pool through the process of natural selection, this recessive gene actually provides a major advantage for spirit bears. Their coloring makes them much more difficult to spot by salmon, as compared to other black bears. Spirit bears have been shown to be much more proficient at fishing out food from the streams, effectively promoting their survival and increasing the concentration of the recessive gene in the black bear population.

The mythical history and their extraordinary appearance draws researchers and wilderness lovers from all over the world, so much so that the Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy has been established on Princess Royal Island. Although there has always been a deep respect for the environment in this area, logging and hunting still poses a threat to black bears and spirit bears alike. Fortunately, these miraculous "mistakes" of nature show no signs of disappearing, and continue to thrive in this stunning part of the world.


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