Hair From Ghostly Bears Reveals New Genetic Secrets

Hair From Ghostly Bears Reveals New Genetic Secrets
Spirit bears are not albinos, but born with the same genetic quirk that causes red hair in humans.Credit: Cael Cook

First Nations peoples along British Columbia’s Central Coast led research to help preserve the area’s white-furred Spirit bears.

Lesley Evans Ogden for The New York Times

Douglas Neasloss was skeptical that Spirit bears existed. A member of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation in Canada, he had heard the stories of white-furred bears that roamed British Columbia’s rainforest. But Mr. Neasloss, a former tour leader and cultural interpreter, had never seen one until 2005, when he experienced “one of the most magical moments” of his guiding career. During a hike, he caught sight of a cinnamon-tinged white bear as it walked out ahead of him, then lay down 50 feet away to munch on a freshly caught salmon.

After his first Spirit bear encounter, Mr. Neasloss asked community elders why these bears weren’t widely discussed. During the fur trade of the 1800s, he learned, existence of the ghostly bears was kept secret to keep them safe. Today, they are the official mammal of British Columbia, and known also as the Kermode bear.

And now that the secret is out, coastal peoples, including the Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Gitga’at Nations, are determined to preserve the bears’ uniqueness. That’s part of what motivated Indigenous-led research, co-authored by Mr. Neasloss, who is now resource stewardship director for his Nation. The study, published Sunday in Ecological Solutions and Evidence, suggests that the gene that turns the coat of these Spirit bears ghostly white is rarer than previously estimated, and that their habitat in the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada is not yet adequately protected. read more