10 Fascinating Facts About Spirit Bears
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A pale specter drifts through Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. It isn’t a ghost, but it might as well be — the white animal is a remarkably rare sight, and it’s becoming even less common over time. Here are 10 facts about spirit bears, an animal few people ever get to see.
1. Most Kermode Bears Are Black
“Spirit bear” is the colloquial term for a white Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), which is a subspecies of the American black bear (Ursus americanus). The fact that black bears are called “black” even though they can be black, white, or cinnamon brown can be confusing!
The main thing to remember is that the Kermode bear subspecies can be black or white, but they’re usually black. The white ones — the spirit bears — are especially rare.
Even within the spirit bears’ core territory, just 43% of them are white. A mere 43 miles away from their main territory, the white trait is virtually nonexistent. Researchers estimate there are no more than 250 spirit bears in the world.
2. Kermode Bears Have a Small Range
Kermode bears only live in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest — specifically, the central and north coast regions. This lush temperate rainforest borders the Pacific Ocean and gives the bears access to both wooded and coastal territories. Within this range, spirit bears are most common on British Columbia’s Gribbell Island.
3. Spirit Bears Are Not Albino
One of the most unusual facts about spirit bears is that, while they are a beautiful shade of white, they are not truly albino. Like black-colored American black bears, they still have pigment in their eyes and nose.
The gene responsible for a spirit bear’s ghostly coat is recessive. That means two black-coated parents can have a white cub as long as they carry the recessive gene.
How did spirit bears come to be? Thousands of years ago, a black bear was probably born with a mutation that made it white. When it reproduced, a few of its offspring were also born white, and even dark-colored offspring occasionally would have had white cubs. Over time, the trait became more common in the isolated coastal communities of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest.
4. Spirit Bears Are Culturally Significant
The Native Americans living in Canada’s rainforests have long believed spirit bears are sacred. According to legend, Raven — the Creator of the world — made every tenth bear white to remind people of the last ice age. He placed the white bears on Princess Royal Island so they could be protected. People also told stories of how the spirit bears could swim deep underwater and guide people to magical places.
Spirit bears are culturally significant to First Nations people in the same way bald eagles are an important national symbol in the U.S. Today, the spirit bear is the official provincial mammal of British Columbia.
5. It’s Legal to Hunt Kermode Bears
Although shooting a white bear is outlawed, hunters may still kill black Kermode bears. Since these bears often carry the gene for white cubs, hunting them directly threatens the spirit bear population.
The British Columbian Government and First Nations banned the hunting of black bears within Gitga’at and Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations territories in 2022. The new regulation protects Kermode bears from being hunted in around 13% of the Great Bear Rainforest. While that’s a good start, stronger hunting regulations would benefit spirit bears even more.
6. Spirit Bears Are Expert Fishers
When Pacific salmon return to the Great Bear Rainforest’s rivers in autumn to spawn, Kermode bears come out of the woods to gorge themselves on seafood. The salmon provide an excellent feast before it’s time for the bears to hibernate.
Interestingly, spirit bears are better at catching salmon during the day than black bears are. Their pale coats provide better camouflage against the bright backdrop of the sky, making it harder for fish to see them. Perhaps this is one reason why the white fur trait continues to be passed on.
7. Kermode Bears Help the Trees
Kermode bears often carry salmon into the woods to eat later. After dining on this to-go food, they leave the carcasses behind. The discarded fish carcasses provide a rich source of nutrients for the trees and other vegetation.
Interestingly, bears’ urine after eating salmon also contains a lot of nitrogen. Although some of this nitrogen goes toward building the bears’ muscles, much of it is excreted and absorbed into the ground, helping trees grow even more.
8. Kermode Bears Live a Long Time
The average life span of a Kermode bear is 20 to 25 years in the wild. Sadly, the bears face many threats to their survival in the modern day, including hunting, habitat loss due to logging, climate change, and oil development. Organizations like the Spirit Bear Research Foundation are conducting research to address these ongoing issues.
9. Kermode Bears Are Protective Mothers
The term “mama bear” is based in reality — Kermode bears are very attentive to their cubs. After mating, a mother bear beds down in a hollow tree for the winter. She gives birth to up to four cubs in December or January. For the rest of the frigid winter, the cubs huddle close to their mom and fatten up on milk.
Once they leave the den tree, the babies move on to eating solid food, but they still stay with their mother for around a year for protection.
10. Spirit Bears Are an Economic Boon
Visitors come from around the world to watch wildlife in the Great Bear Rainforest, with many hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive spirit bear. The Indigenous-owned Spirit Bear Lodge in Klemtu, British Columbia caters to visitors who want to learn about the spirit bears as well as the rich social history of the area.
This is great news — increased spending in the ecotourism sector supports the surrounding First Nations communities. Wildlife watching is a sustainable way to interact with nature without harming it in the process.
Long Live the Spirit Bears
Canada’s white bears are truly unique. They play an integral role in the Great Bear Rainforest’s ecosystem, are culturally important to the First Nations people, and bring tourism dollars into British Columbia. Conserving them will benefit people, the economy, and the environment alike.
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About the author
Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.