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A provocative aspect of the climate change debate is the impact that temperature changes have on species. In particular, people have used the beloved and majestic polar bear, Ursus maritimus, as a mascot for the negative impact of climate change. A few years ago, it wasn't known that global warming could affect the fundamental definition of the polar bears species.
Polar bears are closely related to grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) and it has long been known that these animals can interbreed, creating a rare hybridization of the polar bear and the grizzly bear (formally called Ursus arctos horribilis and more commonly referred to as a grolar).
This hybrid, though extremely rare, has occurred in captivity and has long been storied in arctic legends. In 1864 biologist, Clinton Hart Merriam, described an animal killed at Rendezvous Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada as "buffy whitish with a golden brown muzzle". A century later, Clara Helgason remembers a bear shot by hunters on Kodiak Island during her childhood in 1943 as "a large, off-white bear with hair all over his paws".
In April 2006, Jim Martell, a sport hunter from the United States, shot a grolar near on Banks Island. Martell had paid $50,000, for an official license and a guide to hunt polar bears in Canada’s arctic. Martell shot what appeared, at a distance, to be a polar bear but officials noticed that beyond the thick, creamy white fur, typical of polar bears, the animal also had long claws; a humped shoulder, scoop-shaped snout and brown patches around its eyes. The hybrid identification was confirmed by a DNA test.
Similarly in April 2010, David Kuptana, an Inuvialuit hunter from Ulukhaktok on Victoria Island shot what he thought was a polar bear. After a closer inspecting and DNA testing done, it was found that the bear's mother was a grizzly-polar hybrid and the father was a grizzly bear. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources confirrmed that it was the first recorded second-generation polar-grizzly bear hybrid found in the wild.
Why two grolars have been shot in the last four years is a mystery, but the fact that others have been sighted around Victoria Island and that the latter kill was a second generation mix suggests that these hybrids are becoming more common. A report published in Canadian Field Naturalist offers the first documented evidence that grizzlies are migrating into polar bear territory, possibly due to shrinking ice levels. The reduced tundra for the polar bears, means that they more often encroach on the territory of grizzlies in a desperate attempt to find food. Though the Canadian government continues to monitor the bear population, its efforts towards addressing the root cause of the problem is curbed by the desire for continued economic growth.
The bear shot by Kuptana was sold to the Northwest Territories government, which has had it mounted and sent back to the Ulukhaktok. It now stands on display, as a sentinal of the community and a symbol of Canada's changing north. Frozen in time, the bear is displayed both as an educational resource and a tourist attraction. The last time I wrote about this topic was in 2007, and the controversy it generated was not surrounding the impact of climate change but rather about the practice of hunting polar bears. For the moment at least the issue of American big game hunters shooting polar bears in Canada has been somewhat alleviated. Not by a responsible act on the part of the Canadian government, who continues to sell its natural resources and decimate its environment for a few greenbacks, but instead by the United States government which has listed the polar bear as a threatened species and has banned the import of its prized pelts.
Sarda Sahney is a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol. She studies ancient biodiversity and is passionate about the communication of science. You can find Sarda on twitter, at Ask a Biologist, or on her university website.
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How many hunting permits does the Candian government give out each year?
Why are not more concerned about what climate chage means for polar bears?
Why are *we* not more concerned is what I meant to say..