The Kemode bear: Spirit of the forest

Deep within the Great Bear Rainforest, in Canada, all is not as it seems. The unique ecosystem produces strange natural scenes. On this coastal land, dampened by dense mist, we can still find indigenous tribes who began living there long before the white man arrived.

A hub of life, displaying great biodiversity, with grey wolves, black bears, grizzly bears, deer, pumas, sea otters, humpback whales, killer whales and white Kermode bears, the spirit of the forest.

Spirit Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) - Walk on the Log. By NaturesMomentsuk | Shutterstock.com
Spirit Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) – Walk on the Log. By NaturesMomentsuk | Shutterstock.com

The species of the Ursidae family

There are eight distinct species of bear in the world: The sun bear (1. Helarctos malayanus), the giant panda (2. Ailuropoda melanoleuca), the Asian black bear (3. Ursus thibetanus), the American black bear (4. Ursus americanus), the sloth bear (5. Melursus ursinus) , the spectacled bear (6. Tremarctos ornatus), the brown bear (7. Ursus arctos) and the polar bear (8. Ursus maritimus).

Different physical characteristics, such as fur colour, make it reasonably easy to distinguish between species. For some (e.g. black bear and brown bear), their names are a bit of a give-away! And we call know that polar bears are white and that giant pandas are black and white.

However, some of these species contain various subspecies. For example, larger than life kodiak and grizzly bears are both subspecies of the brown bear.

The kermode bear is perhaps the most peculiar of all the ursidae family. Despite being a subspecies of the American black bear, ironically, the kermode bear is often born white or cream-coloured fur. Importantly, this is not because of albinism, nor are they a hybrid of black bear and polar bear. In fact, their colour is due to a recessive gene carried by some members of the species.

Different species of bears vector illustration. Eight bear species of the world. By Rhoeo | Shutterstock.com
Different species of bears vector illustration. Eight bear species of the world. By Rhoeo | Shutterstock.com

A white ghost on a green canvas

The spirit bear, or ghost bear, lives exclusively along the central coast of British Columbia, in Canada. Their native landscapes are awash with the intense greens of foliage and mosses. We’re so used to seeing images of polar bears in their arctic habitat, the sight of this white bear with an all-green background is most impressive.

Details and facts about the spirit bear

The origin of the name spirit bear is rooted in local mythology. Inhabitants also referred to these animals as “moskgm’ol”, simply meaning “white bear”.

The precise size of the remaining population of kermode bears is unknown, but some estimates set it at no more than 400. Interestingly, only one in ten individuals are born with white or cream fur as, for this to happen, both parents must carry the recessive gene.

For the American black bear in British Columbia, salmon is the main food source. In autumn, bears take full advantage of the salmon’s return to the ocean. Hunting this nutritious fish, they stock up on fats in time for the winter hibernation.

Funnily enough, the white kermode bears are most successful hunting during the day, apparently going unnoticed by the unsuspecting salmon!

Spirit Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) - Surveying. By NaturesMomentsuk | Shutterstock.com
Spirit Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) – Surveying. By NaturesMomentsuk | Shutterstock.com

The dangers facing the Kermode bear

Despite the fact that the Government of British Columbia managed to broker a deal in 2006 to protect 18,000 km2 of forest, much of the kermode bear’s habitat is threatened by tree felling. The loss of cedars, important to bears for hibernation and procreation, is particularly concerning.

Besides this, fishing, pollution and climate change have all had an impact on salmon numbers and, on top of this, kermode bears face competition from grizzly bears, that have begun to venture into their territory in search of food.

Grizzly bears are larger, more aggressive and regularly expel American black bears from the better fishing areas.

A final factor is hunting. In the Great Bear Rainforest the hunting of white kermode bears is prohibited, however the hunting of American black bears (and brown bears) is allowed. Considering that many of the American black bears are carriers of the recessive gene needed for the continuation of white kermode bears, this policy is quite illogical.

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