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NNSL Photo/graphic

Idaho hunter Jim Martell is shown with the hybrid polar/grizzly bear he shot on Banks Island -- thinking it was a polar bear. It's the first recorded grizzly/polar hybrid found in the wild. - photo courtesy of Jim Martell

Scientists confirm bear is a hybrid

Dorothy Westerman
Northern News Services

Sachs Harbour (May 15/06) - Scientists have confirmed the male bear shot on Banks Island April 16 was indeed a hybrid grizzly/polar bear.

Analysis of a sample determined the mother was polar and the father was grizzly.

This is the first time the two species have been known to mate in the wild.

For Sachs Harbour hunting guide Roger Kuptana, the incident was a bittersweet event.

Kuptana, along with two other guides and an American sport hunter, were looking to shoot a polar bear during an expedition.

"I have mixed feelings about that," Kuptana said after learning of the bear's unique genetic make-up.

"It's something so rare," Kuptana said, adding the fact they shot the hybrid bear unknowingly made him feel somewhat sad.

American sport hunter Jim Martell was with Kuptana near Nelson Head, about 120 km outside of Sachs Harbour, when he shot the bear with a 338 Magnum rifle from about 300 yards away.

Upon closer examination of the dead bear, Kuptana recognized it was not a full-blooded polar bear, as its facial features were unique and its coat had a blondish hue.

As for the bear's characteristics, Kuptana said it acted more like a polar bear than a grizzly.

"Therefore, I suspect its mother was probably a polar bear," he said. "I know how a polar bear acts when I see one."

With regard to its facial features, Kuptana said there were round, dark circles around its eyes, unlike a polar bear. Its snout was an obvious cross between both species and its claws were not as long as a grizzly's, but yet longer than a polar bear's.

It's tail was like that of a polar bear's as well, he said.

When the bear was shot, it was out on the ice as a polar bear would be, Kuptana added.

Martell could not be reached for comment, as he is once again in the NWT - this time to hunt for a grizzly bear.

Dr. David Paetkau, senior geneticist at the Wildlife Genetics International Laboratory in Nelson, B.C., said after examining its DNA, he would like to see the entire hide of the bear to study its morphology.

"It would be good to look at this animal to see how it compares to the parent species," Paetkau said of the unique mammal he and his staff call the "grizzlor."

The lab received a one-square-inch sample of the hide for the DNA study.

He said one interesting aspect of polar bears is that they have hollow hairs that are adapted to an extreme lifestyle.

"The hair doesn't look like anything we've seen before and we've probably handled a couple of hundred thousand hair samples from bears," Paetkau said.

"It's interesting from an evolutionary perspective. We tend to simplify evolution," he said.

The question one is left to ponder is whether the mating of two species is the consequence of global warming.

"Perhaps this is part of an ongoing phenomenon or an incident we were lucky to observe," Paetkau said.

"But it's interesting to see two animals that have lived near each other and maintain a distinct identity for tens of thousands of years to see them breed in nature. It is not what we'd normally expect," Paetkau said.

Dr. Ian Sterling, a research scientist with Canadian Wildlife Service in Edmonton, said for a scientist, this hybrid bear is a very interesting find.

"We've known that polar and grizzly bears breed in captivity, but the polar bear breeding season is earlier than that of the grizzly."

In the southern Beaufort Sea, Sterling said grizzlies regularly go onto the ice in the spring to scavenge seals killed by polar bears.

"There is a little overlap in habitat," Sterling said of the conditions which would make the unusual mating occur.

"We've known it would be theoretically possible for some time, but everybody is very surprised it actually did happen," he said.

Sterling said now the question arises of whether or not it has brothers or sisters, or possibly cousins.

Now the bear's genetics have been established, the hide will be returned to the hunter, who was hunting legally with a licensed guide and had a non-resident alien tag for the animal.

Kuptana won't hesitate, however, the next time a hunter accompanies him on a hunt.

"I think this is a one-in-a-million type thing," said Kuptana, who has been hunting for most of his life.

"I'll probably never see anything like that in my lifetime again."