Up the coast of British Columbia in the largest temperate rainforest in the world white bear lives, almost as much a mystery now as it had in ancient days. According to legend, Raven, creator of the world ended the ice age by turning the world green. As a reminder of the times before, he designated one in every ten black bears to be white. A paradise was created for these bears so they would be protected and never leave. That paradise consists of Princess Royal and Gribble islands.
Originally called Masala or Moksgm’ol (meaning white bear) by native peoples, this bear is neither albino nor a descendant of the polar bear. Believed to have evolved in the last 10,000 years from isolated black bears, a recessive gene causes one in ten bears to be white. In 1905 Dr. William Hornaday of the New York Zoo named the bear Ursus Kermodei after the Canadian scientist Francis Kermode who did extensive research on the species. Hornaday believed the bear to be a species separate from the black bear. In 1928 the bear was correctly classified as a member of the black bear family.
The reason for the white colored coat comes from recessive genes that have to be in both parents. Moksgm’ol has two copies of each gene in their genome. The coding for certain genes is called alleles. When the alleles of both parents are at odds, such as if one gene is for black hair color and one for white, the bear is born a black bear and the black allele is said to be dominant. When both parents have the recessive gene, then the allele that produces white hair can be dominant.
The main protein for regulating hair and skin color is called the melanocortin 1 receptor or melanocyte. This member of the G-protein coupled receptor family of proteins works on the surface of pigment producing cells to regulate color. A single nucleotide replacement in the melanocyte is believed to be responsible for the white fur. As cubs, the Moksgm’ol are pure white, but when it ages the coat turns creamy colored and can have a reddish-orange stripe up the back. After a few days of hot dry weather, the coats of older bears turn pure white again.
In an effort to gain support for conservation of the bear, Moksgm’ol was once again renamed, this time, Spirit Bear. While certain areas of the Great Bear Rainforest have been set aside for tourism and conservation, much of the rainforest is being logged at a rate that could cause problems for the Spirit Bear. With a single old growth cedar being valued at $180,000 logging is a profitable business. Coupled with global warming which is changing the spawning habitat of salmon and depleting the bear’s food source, the Kermode faces a lot of challenges for its survival. However, the beauty and rarity of Moksgm’ol have brought a lot of positive attention. Conservationist’s tireless efforts have helped preserve this incredible creature’s habitat. Raven can be assured that, at least for now, his reminder of the ice age will survive.