WHAT IS THAT? A grey polar bear?
Is climate change spawning whole new species of animals?
Just imagine Jim Martell’s face, when he shot what he thought was a polar bear on Banks Island, but was threatened with prosecution for shooting a grizzly!
In nature, cause and effect are accelerating. The effect of the human foot-print in the ecological system is amplifying at a dizzing speed.
Perhaps we don’t realize yet what new world we’re creating but near the Arctic, in the wake of melting ice, the effects are becoming clearly visible.
Polar bears face a new threat besides melting ice — male grizzly bears are moving into their territories, competing for food and are even mating with their females.
Scientists have already discovered one case of a hybrid grolar bear and are circulating requests to hunters and polar tour operators to look out for more.
One possible explanation for closer interaction between the species is climate change, which has allowed grizzlies to move north into areas that were once too cold for them.
Grizzly bears have traditionally been found in Alaska, western Canada and northwestern American states, including Idaho and Montana. However, grizzlies are moving into Wapusk National Park on the edge of Hudson Bay in eastern Canada, an area previously dominated by polar bears.
Grizzlies have also been found hundreds of miles further north on the remote Canadian Arctic islands. In 2006 Jim Martell, a hunter, shot what he thought was a polar bear on Banks Island, but was threatened with prosecution for shooting a grizzly. It had the long claws and hump back typical of grizzlies but genetic tests revealed that it was a hybrid with a grizzly father and polar bear mother. This was the first sightings of a wild grolar.
On nearby Victoria Island, an invading grizzly ate two polar bear cubs. Such encounters seem likely to become increasingly common. Professor John England, a geologist at Alberta University in Canada, recently photographed newly arrived grizzlies on Melville Island, 1,000 miles north of the Arctic Circle — the most northerly sighting ever recorded. They would have had to cross 60 miles of sea ice to get there. The contradictory behavior of the two species — sometimes mating and sometimes fighting — may reflect their uncertainty towards each other.
Clockwise: A female hybrid, male hybrid, polar bear and brown bear (all pictures courtesy of Alexandra Preuß)
Polar and grizzly bears are actually closely related. Genetic studies suggest polar bears evolved from a population of grizzlies that became cut off in a remote part of Alaska during an ice age about 200,000 years ago — a short period of time in evolutionary terms. Scientists suggest that the white coat of polar bears evolved because paler creatures would have had an advantage in hunting seals. In genetic terms, however, such differences are superficial. In captivity polar bears and grizzlies can interbreed, with their offspring also being fertile — a sign that their DNA is similar.