Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wondering About White Bears

I dunno what comes to your mind when you're out paddling, but I was wondering the other day about bears. Most of the bears I'm likely to run across are black bears, here on Vancouver Island. They like a lot of the places I like: forested margins of lakes and streams, or beaches.

Up the coast on some of the islands along the Inside Passage are white black bears. Yeah, that sounds like a contradiction in terms. They're a white version of the little brownish or blackish bears we call "black bears." And little is a relative term, by the way. Compared to a big grizzly bear in the Rocky Mountains, or a big Kodiak bear up in Alaska, a black bear is pretty much a half-sized omnivore who eats mostly plants. But if your usual animal that you interact with is a dog, well, a black bear is usually way bigger than most Newfoundland dogs.

While I haven't seen any bears when I'm out paddling, my partner Bernie and I have seen several when we were driving on the Yellowhead Highway, and he saw one when he was riding on the bike trail called the Galloping Goose. And my friend Linda has seen bears when she was on canoe trips -- she says it was wonderful to drift down a river past a bear on one bank, until they saw the bear's cub on the other shore. Augh! The canoe was between the mother bear and cub! Paddle faster!

I wondered how the kermode bears, these white bears, got to be white. They're not albinos, which is an absence of the colour pigment melanin, a genetic quirk that affects a small percentage of all warm-blooded animals. They're not related to polar bears. These kermode bears are white for a different reason: they inherit a recessive gene. Some bears are partly white and partly black, or cream-coloured, and people have seen black mother bears with white or partly white cubs.

It turns out that white bears are a little bit better at catching salmon than dark-coloured bears... seems that the salmon are more able to see a black bear looming over the water. The University of Victoria has an article about it posted here.

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