At first glance, if you were to see a spirit bear, also know as the Kermode bear, you’d probably assume that it was a polar bear. But this beautiful bear doesn’t live near the North Pole. Instead, you’re more likely going see one in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, on the British Columbia Coast between Vancouver Island and Southeast Alaska. That’s precisely where Paul Nicklen took these amazing shots for National Geographic.
According to scientists, the white fur is triggered by Kermodism, a recessive mutation at the MC1R gene, the same gene associated with red hair and fair skin in humans. To be born white, a bear must inherit the mutation from both parents. The parents don’t necessarily have to be white, they just need to pass on the recessive gene. It’s not uncommon for white bears to be born to black parents.
Spirit bears are especially common on certain islands in the Great Bear Rainforest. On Princess Royal Island, one in ten black bears is white. On Gribbell Island, directly north of Princess Royal, it’s one in three. Biologist Wayne McCrory of the Valhalla Wilderness Society calls Gribbell “the mother island of the white bears.”
Interestingly enough, the white fur gives spirit bears a slight advantage when fishing for salmon. Researchers have noticed that while both white and black bears have the same success rate when it’s dark, white bears caught salmon on one-third of their attempts in the daytime, while the black ones were only successful one-quarter of the time.