What’s Black, and White, and One of Earth’s Rarest Bears?

Legend says supernatural forces turned the Kermode bear’s coat white. Science says a gene mutation put white fur on the black bear species.

For millennia the Kitasoo native people on Canada’s Pacific coast have known this bear and its legend. As the elders tell it, Raven the Creator had turned Earth from a frozen rock into a green garden. But as a reminder of the ice age, he caused every 10th black bear to be white. The formal name is Kermode bear. Locals call them ghost, or spirit, bears, and some believe they’re sacred or supernatural creatures.

There is science, not just folklore, behind several of the spirit bear’s traits.

By genus and species, it’s an American black bear. But if both parents (no matter their color) have the same mutation in a gene that affects pigment production, their offspring will have white fur. To confirm this, researchers used wire snares to collect samples of bears’ hair, then analyzed the DNA. Of 220 bears, 22 had inherited the recessive white-coat gene from both parents—and all 22 were white.

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