11 spirit bear facts you need to know

Discover what turns a black bear white and 10 more amazing facts about the spirit bear, also known as the ghost bear or the Kermode bear. 

Spirit Bear, Gribbell Island, British Columbia

1. Dubbed spirits of the forest, Kermode bears (Ursus americanus kermodei) are a subspecies of the North American black bear with a rare recessive gene that makes their fur white or cream. 

2. Spirit bears are found only in the Great Bear Rainforest, a 6.4 million ha ecosystem on British Columbia’s north and central coast. It is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.

3. No one agrees on the exact number of spirit bears living in this corner of the world, but the best estimate is no more than about 400 individuals.

4. One in ten black bears is pale, and to produce pale cubs both parents – white or black – must carry the gene that results in the white or cream-coloured coat.

5. The First Nations communities that have lived in the region for thousands of years call the spirit bear moskgm’ol, which simply means ‘white bear’, and view the animal as sacred.

6. White bears are more successful at catching salmon in daylight compared with black ones. Pale bears are better camouflaged than dark ones by day, because they contrast less with a bright sky background, so salmon don’t notice them as much.

7. Pacific salmon are the lifeblood of the Great Bear Rainforest. When they return from the ocean in autumn to spawn spirit bears emerge from the forest to feast on pink, chum and coho salmon before going into hibernation.

8. The bears play a key role in the ecosystem, contributing to the growth of the forest by spreading marine nutrients. They carry salmon carcasses deep into the forest where they are absorbed by the forest floor and the nutrients from the ocean are effectively transferred to the trees.

9. Because numbers of salmon are down, grizzlies travel farther to look for food and are encroaching on spirit bear territory for the first time. This might be bad news for spirit bears. Grizzlies are larger and stronger, and usually chase other bears off from prime fishing spots.

10. Bear biologists are concerned about the lack of adequate logging guidelines to protect the big old cedar trees that the spirit bears depend on for hibernating and giving birth to their young.

11. The government of British Columbia allows the hunting of grizzly and black bears in the Great Bear Rainforest. So while it is illegal to kill a spirit bear, hunters may shoot a black bear that carries the crucial gene.

Find out more about spirit bears in the September 2015 issue of BBC Wildlife

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