The animal in the picture above is a black bear.
No, you’re not looking at the next gold and white dress debate. (Or was black and blue?)
Even though this guy looks a bit like a lost polar bear or a white grizzly bear, he (or she) is a subspecies of the black bear.
While black bears are common in the Great Smoky Mountains, you probably won’t be seeing a white one like this in the Smokies.
This subspecies of the black bear is called the “Kermode bear” or technically, ursus americanus kermodei. It is also sometimes referred to as a “spirit bear”.
How rare is an albino bear?
Very rare. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact population count, but true albino bears typically do not live as long due to their poor eyesight.
One was spotted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks more than a decade ago, and it’s easy to see the difference between a true albino bear when checking out this rare beauty.
But if you search for an albino bear, you commonly come across information about a Kermode or “spirit” bear. It’s important to note that the Kermode bear is actually not an albino bear.
Still, the Kermode bear is also rare and deserves its own distinctive recognition. So how do you tell the difference? Here are some fun facts about these white, furry anomalies:
6. The Kermode bear is not actually an albino bear
While they are sometimes referred to as albino bears, the pigmentation in their skin and eyes means they are not albino.
This light coloration is the result of a single recessive gene that causes a lack of pigmentation in their fur.
So how do you know know the difference? An albino bear would have a distinctive pink nose.
And in case you’re wondering, spirit bears are also not related to polar bears.
5. The Kermode bears are generally in Canada
Some sources say these bears are exclusively in the region of British Columbia. Bear.org says that about one in one million bears outside of that region is white.
However, Discover Wildlife says these bears can only be found in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Basically, if you think you see one in the Smokies, you should call officials at National Geographic – stat.
4. They are a very rare animal
It’s nearly impossible to say exactly how many of these bears exist, but we do know that they are very rare.
Why are they so rare? Both parents must carry the recessive mutant gene, and only an estimated 1 in 10 bears do.
Those seem like slim odds, but thanks to the phenomenon known as positive assortative mating, it’s speculated that white Kermode bears are more likely to breed with other white Kermode bears, and black Kermode bears breed more with black Kermode bears.
This is hypothesized to do with imprinting.
3. They are excellent hunters
Most bears are considered to be good hunters. However, some people assume that a bear with white fur might have a disadvantage.
However, these bears primarily prey on salmon and can blend in with a bright sky better than their black bear counterparts.
The bears also eat berries and insects, similar to their black-furred family.
2. It’s illegal to hunt one
This is true for most rare species, and this is true for Kermode bears in British Columbia. Unfortunately, in some areas where they are indigenous, it is legal to hunt black bears, which could carry the rare gene.
Of course, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, black bears are protected.
1. They are revered by Native American culture
Multiple sources say that these bears are considered sacred by Native Americans. According to legend, the spirit or ghost bear is a reminder of times past. Specifically, it’s a reminder of the white color of ice and snow.
Okay, okay, you probably won’t find a white bear or even the cinnamon bears in the Smokies.
But since you might see a “regular” black bear, brush up on these safety tips on what to do if you see one. Also, have the camera ready and enjoy your trip to the Smokies.
Did you know about these spirit bears? Let us know in the comments below!