News came out earlier this month of a rare creature in the Upper Peninsula — a white black bear.
A hunting guide’s trail camera captured images of the young spirit bear at a bait pile in the western UP during the first week of September. He asked that MLive not print his name from him in a Sept. 16 article because of the criticism he received after others had posted the photos on social media without his permission from him. 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 white black bear confirmed in Michigan, according to Cody Norton, large carnivore expert for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
This UP bear is noteworthy not just for its pale fur but also because it is roughly 2,350 miles from the most well-known black bear population of that color, the Kermode in British Columbia, Canada, along the Pacific Ocean. It’s among only a handful of white black bears documented outside of British Columbia.
The gene that creates such ivory bears is recessive, meaning if the animal has a gene for black and for white, it will be a black-colored bear. So to produce “white” black bear, both parents, if black, must carry the gene for that color. When it’s a scarce gene in a large population, the odds of two individuals coming together to make this match are slim — and the cub has to inherit that gene from both parents, not just one, to be white.
Yet if a recessive gene gets passed on long enough, the right combination can happen, as it apparently did here. And the gene didn’t have to come from the Kermode bears but could be a local mutation, Norton said.
“I think these genes can be kind of floating around in the population,” Norton said.
The Kermode bears have more chance of the recessive color getting a better foothold in the Canadian gene pool because most of them dwell on three islands — Gribbell, Princess Royal and Roderick. Still, only 10% to 20% of the Kermode bear population is white.
It’s referred to as a spirit bear because of the significance of white animals to indigenous people, who view them as sacred. But the Kermode name came 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.
The Pacific coastal areas are more open, so a white bear would not be as conspicuous as it would be in the dense forests of the Upper Peninsula, where the black color can out-compete it, Norton said.
The northwestern United States and Canada also have a gray-blue variety of black bear called “glacier bears,” that primarily live in southwestern Alaska and parts of British Columbia. Like the Kermode, it is a relatively isolated population, so the recessive color gene took hold.
Until now, the only other black bear color variation recorded in the Upper Peninsula is a brown version usually referred to as cinnamon, sometimes as blond or chocolate, Norton said. Two hunters in the western UP harvested cinnamon bears in 2019 but usually Norton sees the color only about every five years.
“It’s still extremely rare,” he said.
News of the white bear in the Upper Peninsula did raise some fears someone would 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 he has no intention of taking the bear — which is small and appears to be only about 2 years old — now or in the future, Norton said.
Reports surfaced as well that the young male bear had been killed by wolves, but Norton said they have no evidence that 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” gray squirrel once was unusual but now is common, a reflection that as recessive genes get more embedded in local populations, it has far more chance to become established. Residential areas with gray squirrels also may have red, blonde and white colors turn up.
Red foxes, too, can sport coats of different colors. While the “net” type definitely is most common, the “cross” fox — still red but with dark shading, like smoked cheddar — does occur in the area. I saw one early this past 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 spine and shoulders that creates a cross on the back.
A “silver” fox kit — black fur that as an adult will have silver guard hairs — became something of a celebrity earlier this summer in Felch Township because of its unusual dark appearance. Unfortunately, it got struck by a vehicle in early July, so we never got to see it in full “silver” coat. Still, both fox parents had to carry the unique gene to produce such a kit, so another could appear with next spring’s litter if the same pair mate again.
Both the cross and silver red foxes have genes that cause their fur to be more melanistic, or black, than the red type. With the cross, it’s black shading, along with face and belly, but some red remains, while the silver is almost fully black. Both will have white tail tips.
About 51 to 75% of North American red fox are red morphs, though the shade can vary. The cross makes up about 22 to 41% — Norton said it seems to be more common in the west — and silver only 2 to 4%, according to online resources.
Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or firstname.lastname@example.org.