Grolar Bears in Canada: What’s brown and white and red all over?

Admittedly this story is a little dated (got a fair amount of ink last spring) but it’s the first time we’ve heard about it which means there’s a good chance it’s the first time you’ve heard about it too.  And really it’s just too freaky to pass up.

Back in 2006, wildlife experts and scientists on Banks Island in Canada’s Northwest Territories confirmed a naturally occurring polar bear/grizzly bear hybrid, shot by Idaho hunter Jim Martell.  At first blush there was a some posturing over just what was shot (a highly endangered polar bear or just an odd looking grizzly) and authorities took custody of the carcass.  Upon DNA analysis it was determined that this bear was the progeny of a grizzly dad and a polar mom.

And that isn’t even the real story.  The real story is that an Inuvialuit hunter named David Kuptana shot what would later be determined to be a second generation polar-grizzly bear hybrid on some sea ice near Banks Island in April 2010.  Seeing that nothing added up with this animal, Kuptana submitted a sample to the Territories’ Environment and Natural Resources Department. The test revealed that this was indeed a second-generation grolar bear—a mutt with a polar-grizzly hybrid mother and a purebred grizzly father.

This alien breed—called a “grolar” bear though there is a small faction who prefer “prizzly”—is a pretty faithful blend of the two ursus.  They are smaller than polar bears though larger grizzly bears.  They exhibit the trademark, swooping long necks and unmistakable tails of polar bears and the thick heads, broad faces and meaty shoulder humps of grizzly bears, though just not as pronounced as either species.  The animal’s fur is white with distinct patches of brown.  Their hair is a mix of hollow strands and solid strands and their long-toed feet are only partially insulated with hair on the soles of their paws, both of which represent a unique commingling of traits.

In reality, this hybrid was already known to exist as it has been previously achieved in captivity.  Germany’s Osnabruck Zoo is home to most of the 17 confirmed grolar bears with the first being born in 2004 after 25 yeas of the two species living in the same enclosure.  No word yet on why it took these bears 25 years to get busy but research teams in Germany have been aggressively studying the Dr. Moureau-esc phenomenon.

Regardless, this breeds occurrence in the wild was definitely never expected, though hardly a chance encounter.  Both species have elaborate, lengthy mating rituals and polar bear sows spend several days with their mate before ovulating.

Global warming (or “as the climate warms”—whichever camp you belong to) has reportedly been driving grizzly bears farther north in search of food, landing them square in the southern belt of polar bear territory. Meanwhile, polar bears are finding themselves “land bound” instead of out hunting seals on sea ice which in turn forces them into contact with the encroaching grizzlies.

Brendan Kelly, a marine biologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the CBC, “We’re taking this continent-sized barrier to animal movement, and in a few generations, it’s going to disappear, at least in summer months.”

Of course this is only the beginning of the story, but for sake of closure, David Kuptana, the hunter who took Grolar #2, is auctioning off the pelt.  He told CBC, “Right now, we’re already at $15,000, and we’re going to see how far we can go.  If we can do better, we’ll be happy.”  And as for the presumably doomed polar bears, the grolar exists as a somewhat hopeful symbol of nature’s unfathomable adaptability and unrelenting persistence to survive.