News broke earlier this month of a rare creature in the Upper Peninsula: a white black bear.
A hunting guide’s tracking camera captured footage of the youngsters “bear spirit” in a bait pile in western UP during the first week of September. She asked that MLive not publish his name in an article on September 16 due to the criticism she received after others posted the photos on social media without his permission. The full MLive article can be viewed at https://www.mlive.com/public-interest/2022/09/one-in-a-million-white-spirit-bear-spotted-in-upper-peninsula.html .
It’s the first confirmed white black bear in Michigan, according to Cody Norton, a top carnivore expert with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
This UP bear is noteworthy not only for its pale fur, but also because it is approximately 2,350 miles from the best-known population of black bears of that color, the Kermode in British Columbia, Canada, along the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the few documented white black bears outside of British Columbia.
The gene that creates such ivory bears is recessive, meaning that if the animal has a gene for black and one for white, it will be a black bear. So to produce a “white” black bear, both parents, if they are black, must carry the gene for that color. When it comes to a rare gene in a large population, the chances of two individuals coming together to make this pair are slim, and the pup has to inherit that gene from both parents, not just one, to be white.
However, if a recessive gene is passed on long enough, the right combination can occur, as it apparently did here. And the gene didn’t have to come from Kermode bears, but could instead be a local mutation, Norton said.
“I think these genes may be floating around in the population,” Norton said.
Kermode bears have a better chance of the recessive color getting a better foothold in the gene pool because most of them inhabit three Canadian islands: Gribbell, Princess Royal, and Roderick. Still, only 10% to 20% of the Kermode bear population is white.
It is known as a “bear spirit” due to the importance of white animals for indigenous peoples, who see them as sacred. But Kermode’s name comes from Frank Kermode, former director of the Royal BC Museum, who researched the subspecies and was a colleague of William Hornaday, the zoologist who described it, according to Wikipedia.
Pacific coastal areas are more open, so a white bear wouldn’t be as conspicuous as it would be in the dense forests of the upper peninsula, where black can overpower it, Norton said.
The northwestern United States and Canada also have a bluish-gray variety of black bear called “glacial bears”, They live primarily in southwestern Alaska and parts of British Columbia. Like Kermode, it is a relatively isolated population, so the recessive color gene took hold.
So far, the only other black bear color variation recorded in the Upper Peninsula is a brown version generally known as cinnamon, sometimes as blonde or chocolate, Norton said. Two hunters in western UP harvested cinnamon bears in 2019, but Norton typically sees the color only every five years.
“It’s still extremely rare,” he said.
News of the white bear in the upper peninsula raised some fears that someone might try to kill the rare animal as a trophy this hunting season. Norton confirmed that Michigan has no prohibition against hunting a white bear. But the hunting guide who reported the bear indicated that he has no intention of hunting the bear, which is small and appears to be only about 2 years old, now or in the future, Norton said.
Reports also surfaced that the young male bear had been killed by wolves, but Norton said they have no evidence it actually happened. Even if the bear didn’t survive, it’s clear the white gene remains in the population and could resurface again, Norton said.
Other mammals in the region have shown similar color variations. A “black” The gray squirrel was once unusual but is now common, a reflection that as recessive genes become more entrenched in local populations, they have a much better chance of becoming established. Residential areas with gray squirrels can also have red, blonde, and white colors.
Red foxes can also sport different colored coats. While the “red” type is definitely the most common, the “cross” fox, still red but with dark shades, like smoked cheddar cheese, is in the area. I saw one early last summer in Iron County, just north of Crystal Falls. These foxes are not a “cross” with a different species but so named because it has a dark stripe along the spine and shoulders that creates a cross on the back.
A “silver” kit fox, black fur that as an adult will have silver guard hairs, became something of a celebrity earlier this summer in Felch Township due to his unusual dark appearance. Unfortunately, it was hit by a vehicle in early July, so we never got to see it in its entirety. “silver” Coat. Still, both fox parents had to carry the single gene to produce such a kit, so another could turn up with next spring’s litter if the same pair mates again.
Both the crossbred and silvery red fox have genes that make their fur more brooding, or black, than the red type. With the withers, it’s a black shading, along with the face and belly, but some red remains, while the silver is almost entirely black. Both will have white tail tips.
About 51 to 75% of North American red foxes are red morphs, although the hue can vary. Cross accounts for about 22-41% (Norton said it appears to be more common in the West) and silver only 2-4%, according to online resources.
Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or firstname.lastname@example.org.