The Biology

The Kermode bear is a unique subspecies of the American Black Bear. Approximately 10 percent of their population has completely white colored fur, but the other 90% of Kermode Bears are black like a normal black bear. Their color is believed to be caused by a recessive gene trait originally appearing from a mutation to the bears DNA. This means in order for the Kermode Bear to be white it must get the recessive gene from both the other and the father.

The DNA code is written with only 4 letters – A, C, T, G. If one of these changes, it is called a mutation. More on this in biology!

Since they are white they stand out against the dark green forest they inhabit. This actually makes hunting prey more difficult because they are easier to spot, however, their white colour makes them less threatening to salmon therefore they have an advantage when fishing over black bears and catch 35% more salmon on average.

Two Kermode Bears – one with the normal black coat and the other with the famous white coat

It is important to note that Kermode Bears are not polar bears and they are not albino! They are their own subspecies of black bear!

Weight – 225 kg (496 lb)

Height – 180 cm (standing up)

Diet – Omnivore. Fish, berries, deer, insects, plants, fruit, nuts, carrion (dead animals)

The Habitat (in brief) – The Great Bear Rainforest. Old growth forest, high rainforest, mountainous.

Lifespan – ~25 years

The range – where the Kermode bear lives.

Importance to First Nations culture

The Kermode Bear is often called the spirit bear or ghost bear. Spirit bears are deeply respected by the Tsimshian First Nations who share their traditional territory with spirit bears. Referred to as moksgm’ol in Tsimshian languages, several cultural stories exist around the spirit bears. As one story goes, Raven wanted something to remind him of the Long White Time of before. So he chose Bear, the keeper of dreams and memory to help him out. Raven sought Black Bear out. He didn’t have to go far, as he is always seen as a constellation of the stars in the night sky.

Raven made a pact with Black Bear. Black Bear agreed after he was given huge assurances from Raven, that he could live in peace and safety for all time, by letting one out of every ten Black Bears turn white. This was for a reminder for Raven of the misery of the great ice age of before. He decreed that these bears would live in peace and harmony forever.

Image by Coast Salish artist Francis Horne

Additional Facts

  • Spirit bears are found only in the Great Bear Rainforest, a 6.4 million ha ecosystem on British Columbia’s north and central coast. It is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.
  • No one agrees on the exact number of spirit bears, but the best estimate is no more than between 400 – 1000 individuals.
  • The government of British Columbia allows the hunting of grizzly and black bears in the Great Bear Rainforest. So while it is illegal to kill a spirit bear, hunters may shoot a black Kermode bear that carries the white, spirit bear gene. This could cause less and less white Kermode bears to be born.

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