The Spirit Bear is one of the rarest animals in the world. It is truly a transformative experience to spend time in one’s presence.
Sightings of the spirit bear in this wild landscape vary, but the search is as much a part of the experience as a sighting.
Roughly 50% of our guests will set eyes on the secretive white bear that remains hidden in the trackless wilderness of The Great Bear Rainforest.
Spirit bears are rare white-coated black bears (Ursus americanus kermodei) that live in the coastal temperate rainforests of Northwest British Columbia. Their striking colour is caused by an uncommon recessive genetic trait. Spirit bears are not a unique species or subspecies, but a unique colouration of the coastal British Columbian black bear subspecies kermodei.
Their unique colouration is caused by a rare variation at the Mc1r gene (melanocortin 1 receptor), which is involved in melanin production, or the pigment responsible for skin, hair and eye colour. This is the same gene that controls for red hair in humans and blond coats in Labrador retrievers.
Notably, spirit bears are a unique colour phase of the U. americanus kermodei subspecies, not a separate species or subspecies themselves. This means that they can interbreed with black-coated black bears. Genetic studies have revealed that the white coat colouration of spirit bears is recessive to black-coated individuals. As such, both parents must carry a copy of the mutated gene in order for a white cub to be born. Accordingly, white spirit bear or black-coated bear parents can give birth to white spirit bear cubs, as long as the black-coated parent is carrying a copy of the mutated gene.
|At full size, spirit bears weigh about 80–200 kg, with females weighing less than males. They measure 60–90 cm at the shoulder and are approximately 120–190 cm long. Spirit bears can live for approximately 25 years in the wild.
Spirit bears appear to have been historically present throughout their current distribution as they are featured in the longstanding oral traditions of coastal First Nations. Genetic analyses suggest that spirit bears are part of the common lineage of the coastal black bear subspecies that likely lived in ice-free regions on the continental shelf during the Pleistocene ice age.
Further research concludes that the white coat colour has likely been maintained by some combination of genetic isolation, small population size, selective advantage (e.g. the relative ease with which they catch salmon), and possibly non-random mating (spirit bears prefer to mate with other spirit bears).
|Similar to all other black bears, spirit bears are omnivores, meaning they consume both animals and plants. Their diets vastly vary, depending on the bears’ location and the seasonality of food sources. Based on availability, their diet may consist of berries, grasses, plants, insects, carrion, intertidal organisms (e.g. barnacles, clams, mussels, urchins, etc.), moose and deer fawns, and spawning salmon. During spring, they primarily eat emerging vegetation such as skunk cabbage and sedge, at low elevations such as in estuaries and wetlands. Throughout the summer, they will eat numerous berry species as they emerge, including blueberries, huckleberries and salmonberries.|
In the fall, spawning Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus) are an important component of coastal bears’ diet, as they serve as an energy-rich food, critical before winter sleep. Male coastal black bears eat more salmon than female bears.
|Some research has shown that spirit bears have greater success at fishing for salmon during the day than black-coated black bears. It is suggested that this advantage is due to the lack of contrast of a white coat with the grey sky, compared to a black coat, from the fish’s perspective. Indeed, preliminary evidence indicates that on Gribbell Island spirit bears consume more marine resources than black-coated black bears.
Black bears, white and black coated alike, mate from mid-May to mid-July. Females become sexually mature between three and four years of age. Despite mating in early summer, the embryo does not implant in the uterus of the female until late fall. One to three cubs are born naked and weighing approximately 400 g, during their winter sleep period in January or February. Mothers and cubs emerge from their dens between March and April. Cubs are weaned at about eight months, but may stay with their mother for as long as a year-and-a-half.
On the islands where spirit bears are most common, grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) are generally not present. However, increasingly grizzly bears are moving onto several islands with high spirit bear populations. The impact of these newly arrived grizzly bears on spirit bears has not yet been fully studied. However, as grizzly bears are superior competitors for salmon, and can kill black bears, it has been suggested that spirit bears may be negatively impacted by island grizzly bears.
Spirit bears are deeply respected by the Tsimshian First Nations who share their traditional territory with spirit bears. Referred to as moksgm’ol in Tsimshian languages, several cultural stories exist around the spirit bears. One story describes Raven creating spirit bears as a reminder of the last ice age that previously covered its habitat with ice and snow. In modern times, spirit bears are becoming an important focal species for Indigenous-owned ecotourism.
Since the mid-20th century, it has been illegal to hunt spirit bears in British Columbia. Before this time however, the white coats of spirit bears were highly prized by trophy hunters and museum collectors, leading to an increase in hunting and trapping by fur traders.
In 2006, the Spirit bear was adopted as the provincial mammal of British Columbia.
Article by Christina Service - The Canadian Encyclopedia