Churchill: Home of the Pizzly?

Candice Gaukel Andrews January 25, 2011 9

Both grizzly-polar bear hybrids had the long claws of a grizzly bear. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

As the Arctic continues to warm, it comes as no surprise that cold-adapted species, such as polar bears, are moving north in an effort to survive, while those that favor more moderate temperatures are expanding into regions that have now become hospitable habitats for them. One of these species is the grizzly bear, which seems to be exploring territories that were formerly the domain of bears of the “polar” variety. In fact, between 1996 and 2009, nine grizzlies were spotted in Wapusk National Park, just south of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

It may just be the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. According to Dr. Andrew Derocher, a polar bear biologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who has studied the recent patterns of sea-ice loss in Hudson Bay, it’s unlikely that there will even be polar bears in the park by the end of the century. Soon, Churchill may have to change its nickname from “Polar Bear Capital of the World” to “Grizzly Grain Port of the Great North.”

The “pizzly” (or “grolar”) bear

The “Polar Bear Capital of the World” may soon become the “Grizzly Grain Port of the Great North.” ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

When grizzlies and polar bears meet, of course, an opportunity for mating occurs. To date, scientists know of one hybridization event in the wild between the two bear species. In 2006, a hunter who thought he was aiming at a polar bear shot a grizzly-polar bear hybrid in the Northwest Territories. After noticing that the bear had brown patches interspersed within its white fur, wildlife officials seized the animal. The bear also had a humped back, long claws and a facial profile that was concave—all traits characteristic of a grizzly bear. Genetic tests confirmed that the hybrid’s father was a grizzly, and its mother was a polar bear.

Then, on April 8, 2010, an Inuvialuit hunter, David Kuptana, from Victoria Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, shot what he thought was a polar bear. But after inspecting the bear, he found that the animal had brown fur on its paws, long claws and a grizzly-shaped head. DNA testing indicated that the bear’s mother was a grizzly-polar hybrid and the father was a grizzly bear. This animal could well be the first recorded second-generation polar-grizzly bear hybrid found in the wild. While some have taken to calling the hybrids “pizzlies,” others prefer “grolar bear.” Canadian authorities suggest “nanulak,” taken from the Inuit words for polar bear (nanuk) and grizzly (aklak).

Evolution on the fast track

While hybrids in nature aren’t all that unusual, the polar-grizzly bear mix may be a different “animal,” so to speak. We may be speeding up evolution, in a way that nature didn’t intend. For at least 10,000 years, the Arctic ice cap has been a continent-sized, physical barrier that kept many species isolated from each other. Animals adapted to their specific environments—over centuries and many generations—by developing DNA changes that suited their climates better than their old genes did. Individuals don’t adapt genetically; it’s populations that do.

Grizzlies are exploring territories that were formerly the domain of polar bears. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Currently, however, we’re losing Arctic sea ice in a matter of decades. Enough time for an adaptive response may just not be there. In theory, hybridization leads to fitter, more well-adapted animals. First-generation hybrids often exhibit excellent survival characteristics, known as “hybrid vigor.” But successive generations typically fall victim to “outbreeding depression,” a rapid falling off in fitness. It could be that pizzlies might not be able to reproduce enough to sustain themselves. Or, they might carry mutations that will kill them. And the fact that the polar bear is an endangered species makes the matter worse. When a species hybridizes, its gene pool can be taken over and “lost.” The polar bear that we know today simply won’t exist anymore. Polar bears appear to be taking a one-two punch: not only are they being lost due to climate change and the resultant melting sea ice, they are suffering from hybridization.

More Arctic hybrids in the future

Last year, whale experts confirmed the existence of a bowhead-right whale hybrid in the Bering Sea. And a narwhal-beluga whale mix was found in Greenland. Unfortunately, the narwhal-beluga (“narluga” or “belwhal”?) lacked the narwhal’s tusk—an important element in narwhal breeding success. Narwhals are rare, and if they waste their reproductive efforts breeding with belugas, soon there will be very few pure narwhals left.

Hybridization is just one more factor in an endangered species’ decline and loss of biodiversity in the world. Unfortunately, the Endangered Species Act has no official policy for dealing with hybrids. In some cases, wildlife managers propose culling hybrid offspring in order to keep genetic lines of endangered species pure.

Do you think that such measures should be taken to ensure the continued existence of pure polar bears? It’s a question we may have to answer—and soon.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

9 Comments »

  1. sherrill benson January 27, 2011 at 11:13 pm - Reply

    Humans need to stay out of this,they have done enough harm.Let nature take its course.

  2. StellarWinds January 25, 2011 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    My Dad was the manager/civil liaison of the Army’s Fort Devens Site Superfund cleanup. About his quote, below, we both firmly agreed:

    “Natural selection will soon give other species a chance at a dominate role and Mother Earth can sigh and lick her wounds as the species with the deadly big brain finishes its role to a well-deserved extinction, having poisoned and destroyed everything on earth that could have sustained it.

    For along with the huge cerebral cortex that gave us Shakespeare, Bach, Michelangelo, etc… was this malignancy called greed that destined all of Homo sapiens for the bone pile, in a span of time too short to even be of geological significance.” – Tom Strunk

    • Nancy Greer May 5, 2013 at 2:01 pm - Reply

      Your Dad is a man way ahead of his time. I read this today on this website and it hit me like a ton of bricks. With the polar icecaps melting, Keystone XL pipeline, the greed of the corporate elite lining each others pockets! I also read this on the “Give a S#!& about Animals” facebook site but some of the images were too graphic for me.

      Have you watched Occupy Love yet?

      Nancy
      Winnipeg, MB
      Canada

  3. Art Hardy January 25, 2011 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    There’s always some guilt involved when humans are a factor in a species decline, but we shouldn’t play god and try to right a wrong. There’s a reason it’s called natural selection. Nature, left to its own devices will find a way to evolve and produce stronger, more adaptable species.

  4. Valerie Hill January 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    It’s a sad day when a species goes extinct. Most people don’t understand that extinct is forever. But, in the case of the nanulak, the term I prefer, this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. If, because of our meddling with the environment, the polar bear must disappear, then doesn’t it seem to make some argument to maintain a small percentage of their majesty within an entirely new species?

  5. Shadrack January 25, 2011 at 10:42 am - Reply

    Nature thats what make us to be human beings without it I do not know what we could be called and world would not be the same. I like nature and want to watch nature geographicall programmes, I wolud be appreciate if you could send me animal and landmake photos and videos

  6. Devon Jeremy January 25, 2011 at 10:19 am - Reply

    Evolution is not the business of Homo sapiens except insofar as what we do to adapt and evolve to a planet whose very structure and climate are changing. Pedantic to note but: we aren’t in charge of the environment, we are a part of it. The less we interfere with Nature’s marvelous venues for adaptation, the greater the chance for evolution to take care of the massive changes requiring adaptation and ongoing survival of Life on Planet Earth. So: I am opposed to culling. Let nature take its course, it knows better than we do!
    Thank you for opportunity to comment on this very interesting phenomenon.

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