If you ever happen to meet Simon Jackson, be prepared for a passionate lesson on a mysterious white animal that lives only in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The 18-year-old B.C. native is on a crusade to save that animal, known locally as the spirit bear.
The dual threats of logging and hunting in the old-growth forests where the unusual white bear lives have made its future uncertain. Jackson’s nonprofit organization, The Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, and several environmental groups are urging the B.C. government to create a sanctuary, or place of refuge, for the bears.
“I was really struck by this incredible creature,” Jackson said. “And I wanted other people to have a chance to see it. It’s the panda of Canada–equally as beautiful and equally as rare.”
As many as 400 spirit bears roam the forests of coastal British Columbia. Though rare, the spirit bear is not an endangered species. In fact, it’s not a species at all. It belongs to a subspecies, or group within a species that has unique characteristics. The spirit bear is a white-colored Kermode bear, a subspecies of black bear that lives in the rain-soaked forests of coastal B.C. The smaller skull size of the Kermode bear qualifies it as a subspecies.
Most Kermode bears are black, but on a cluster of small coastal islands, one in every ten is white. Scientists are still trying to figure out the genetic, or hereditary, process that makes a normally black Kermode bear white. (See “White Wonder.”)
Of all the black bears living in North America, only a few populations are protected from hunters. White Kermode bears are one such group. Black Kermode bears are fair game, however, and that’s a concern to conservationists, who worry that black Kermodes might carry the gene (or genes) for white fur. Genes are units of heredity that hold the instructions for every cell in the body.
Conservationists are also worried about logging in the spirit bear’s habitat. Consumer pressure has forced logging companies to verbally agree not to cut trees in those forests. No legal agreement exists, however. Environmental groups fear that the spirit bear’s habitat is still in danger.
Though the chainsaws are idle, Wayne McCrory, a biologist with the Valhalla Wilderness Society, is fervently trying to persuade government officials that more protection is needed. McCrory has proposed that 250,000 hectares (620,000 acres) of island and mainland old-growth forest be deemed a sanctuary for spirit bears and other threatened wildlife.
According to McCrory and Jackson, logging even a fraction of that land could deplete the habitat of salmon, which is a crucial food source for bears. Logging could also reduce bear denning sites and expose white spirit bear cubs to predators such as grizzly bears. In time, spirit bears could vanish from the British Columbia coast.
“This is their last intact habitat,” Jackson said. “If spirit bears disappear, we can never get them back.”
The Tsimshian Indians of British Columbia call the spirit bear mokgm’ol–“the white bear put on the planet to remind people of a time when ice covered the land.” What do scientists say about the origins of the white bear?
Most scientists agree that the spirit bear is not an albino bear. Albinism is an inherited condition characterized by the absence of a certain pigment (coloring agent) in the eyes, skin, hair, scales, or feathers. That pigment is called melanin.
Albino animals rarely survive in the wild because their white coloration stands out, making them more vulnerable to predators. A shortage of melanin also causes albinos to have vision and hearing problems.
Because white bear cubs are frequently sighted with black parents and siblings on the B.C. coast, most scientists favor the idea that spirit bears get their white fur through a phenomenon called recessive inheritance. Black bears inherit one allele, or gene for a specific trait, in this case fur color, from each parent. The allele for black fur is a dominant allele. The allele for white fur is a recessive allele. When a bear inherits two dominant alleles, or a dominant and a recessive allele for fur color, the bear will be black. Only when a bear inherits two recessive alleles for fur color will it be white.
A spirit bear is thought to be a black Kermode bear that has inherited a recessive allele for fur color from both its father and its mother.