Spirit of the rain­for­est

Un­cover the mys­tery of the white-furred black bear

World of Animals - - What's Inside - Words Vic­to­ria Wil­liams

Be­fore the world was green, ev­ery­thing was white. Snow and glaciers cov­ered the whole planet, un­til Raven the cre­ator came down and fash­ioned the forests. Once his work was done, Raven found the black bears among the trees and told them that every tenth cub they pro­duced would be born white as snow as a re­minder of the harsh times in the Ice Age. These white spirit bears would live deep in the for­est for safety and would bring peace to the land and those that lived there.

So goes the story of the spirit bears told by the na­tive peo­ple of British Co­lum­bia. It’s an im­por­tant part of their cul­ture, re­flected by the sta­tus of the bears as the of­fi­cial mam­mals of the prov­ince. The only white bear be­sides the po­lar bear, this

mys­te­ri­ous and rare sub­species of the black bear is al­most en­tirely lim­ited to the Great Bear Rain­for­est. To the Ki­ta­soo peo­ple who have lived in the prov­ince for thou­sands of years, the spirit bear is called Moksgm’ol, mean­ing sim­ply ‘the white bear’. It’s also known as the Ker­mode bear, named after Frank Ker­mode, the for­mer di­rec­tor of the Royal British Co­lum­bia Mu­seum who was among the first to dis­cover and study it.

Spirit bears are not al­bi­nos, nor are their hairs trans­par­ent like the fur of a po­lar bear. The ef­fect that pro­duces these pale bears with dark eyes is known as Ker­mod­ism. It’s caused by a re­ces­sive mu­ta­tion in the same gene that cre­ates pale skin and red hair in hu­mans; a male and fe­male don’t need to be white to pro­duce a spirit bear, but they do both need to be car­ry­ing the mu­ta­tion in their DNA. This is rel­a­tively un­likely, which is why only one in ten bears in the Great Bear Rain­for­est is born white.

The mu­ta­tion is car­ried by more bears on some of the is­lands along British Co­lum­bia’s coast; on the main­land there is around one white bear for every 40 to 100 black bears, but on Gribbell Is­land spirit bears make up a third of the over­all ur­sine pop­u­la­tion.

Their strik­ing white fur makes them eas­ier for peo­ple to spot among the dark trees, but spirit bears have an ad­van­tage over their black rel­a­tives when it comes to catch­ing salmon dur­ing day­light hours. Look­ing up from un­der the wa­ter, bears with black fur are ob­vi­ous against the light sky and only catch every fourth fish, while the white hun­ters stand out less and are suc­cess­ful in a third of their at­tempts. Black bears are om­ni­vores, but salmon forms a large part of their diet and is a vi­tal source of fat as they pre­pare for win­ter. Bears don’t truly hi­ber­nate, but they do spend up to seven months rest­ing in dens and tree cav­i­ties to avoid the cold, and fat re­serves pro­vide them with enough en­ergy to sur­vive when food is scarce.

Pre­fer­ring to keep to them­selves, spirit bears can of­ten be seen car­ry­ing the salmon they catch from the rivers back into the dense trees be­fore they start to eat. Sci­en­tists might not ac­cept the sto­ries of the an­i­mals’ su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers, but their pres­ence re­ally does keep

the for­est flour­ish­ing; when they leave salmon re­mains on the ground, the fish car­casses rot and add ni­tro­gen to the soil. Around these parts there’s a be­lief that the land and the wa­ter are con­nected, and the bears pro­vide a link be­tween the two by feed­ing the plants and land an­i­mals with nu­tri­ents from aquatic crea­tures.

The story says that Raven wanted the spirit bear to have eter­nal peace and safety in the rain­for­est, but cur­rently things don’t seem to be lin­ing up for the happy end­ing. It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to count the ex­act num­ber, but ex­perts es­ti­mate that there are be­tween

400 and 1,200 Ker­mode bears in British

Co­lum­bia, mak­ing the sub­species one of the most rare of all the bears. With lower salmon num­bers than in pre­vi­ous years, griz­zly bears are ven­tur­ing fur­ther in search of food and are be­gin­ning to en­ter spirit bear ter­ri­tory for the first time, even swim­ming across stretches of wa­ter to reach the is­lands. These hun­gry in­vad­ing griz­zlies have both size and strength on their side; they chase the smaller res­i­dent bears away from feed­ing sites or spook them, mak­ing it harder for them to sur­vive.

While the en­croach­ing griz­zly bears are a con­cern to those that study, ad­mire and work

“Spirit bears have an ad­van­tage over their black rel­a­tives when it comes to hunt­ing salmon. The white hun­ters stand out less against the sky and are suc­cess­ful in a third of their at­tempts”

to pro­tect the spirit bears, there’s an­other dan­ger loom­ing: hu­mans. De­vel­op­ment of the land for oil pipelines and log­ging is re­duc­ing the area of for­est safe for the bears to live in. They’ve been used as the faces of cam­paigns and protests against the in­fil­tra­tion of the for­est, but the prov­ince is full of valu­able re­sources. Around 25 black bears are shot each year on hunt­ing per­mits granted by British Co­lum­bia’s Min­istry of Forests, Lands and Nat­u­ral Re­source Op­er­a­tions. Laws for­bid the harm­ing or shoot­ing of the white bears, but the black morphs shot might be car­ri­ers of the re­ces­sive gene. Sci­en­tists pre­dict that, with all these fac­tors, com­bined with the abil­ity of the Ker­mode bears to in­ter-breed with other black bear sub­species, the white sub­species is likely to van­ish one day.

The spirit bears are the sym­bol and spir­i­tual heart of the Great Bear Rain­for­est. Tourists travel across the globe to see them, sci­en­tists spend hours ob­serv­ing them, and they hold a spe­cial place in the hearts of the lo­cals who share their back gar­den with these preda­tors. Yet while these bears are fac­ing a dif­fi­cult and un­cer­tain fu­ture, they have a com­mu­nity of de­ter­mined peo­ple work­ing to stop them slip­ping out of ex­is­tence as silently as they dis­ap­pear be­tween the trees.

“With lower salmon num­bers than in pre­vi­ous years, griz­zly bears are ven­tur­ing fur­ther in search of food and are be­gin­ning to en­ter spirit bear ter­ri­tory, even swim­ming to reach is­lands”

below Be­cause it’s caused by a re­ces­sive mu­ta­tion, white cubs can be born to both black and white par­ents

RIGHT White bears have bet­ter luck on the river­banks than black bears thanks to their fairer fur Spirit bears aren’t theonly large an­i­mals around – they sharethe rain­for­est with wolves and cougars

With their strik­ing coats, it’s not hard to see whyKer­mode bears have cap­ti­vated so many peo­ple

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.