Grizzly–polar bear hybrid
|Grizzly–polar bear hybrid|
|Polar/brown bear hybrid at Osnabrück Zoo|
A grizzly–polar bear hybrid (also named grolar bear or pizzly bear or nanulak) is a rare ursid hybrid that has occurred both in captivity and in the wild. In 2006, the occurrence of this hybrid in nature was confirmed by testing the DNA of a unique-looking bear that had been shot near Sachs Harbour, Northwest Territories on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic. The number of confirmed hybrids has since risen to eight, all of them descending from the same female polar bear.
Genetic analysis has revealed multiple instances of introgressive hybridization between bear species, including introgression of polar bear DNA into brown bears during the Pleistocene ("grizzly bear" is a local common name for Ursus arctos whereas "brown bear" is used internationally and in science to refer to the species as a whole).
Occurrences in the wild
With several suspected sightings and eight confirmed cases, theories of how such hybrids might naturally occur have become more than hypothetical. Although these sister species often occupy adjacent regions, direct contact has not been the norm because polar bears hunt, breed and sometimes even make maternity dens on sea ice, where brown bears have an overwhelmingly terrestrial lifestyle.
It has been suggested that the yellowish-white MacFarlane's bear, known from a single specimen collected in 1864, may have been a grizzly-polar hybrid.
Jim Martell, a hunter from Idaho, reportedly shot a grizzly–polar bear hybrid near Sachs Harbour on Banks Island, Northwest Territories on 16 April 2006. Martell, with his local guide, Roger Kuptana, had been hunting for polar bears, and killed the animal believing it to be a normal polar bear. Officials took interest in the creature after noticing that while it had thick, creamy white fur typical of polar bears, it also had long claws, a humped back, a shallow face, and brown patches around its eyes, nose, back, and foot, which are all traits of grizzly bears. If the bear had been adjudicated to be a grizzly, the hunter would have faced a possible CAN$1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
A DNA test conducted by Wildlife Genetics International in British Columbia confirmed it was a hybrid, with a polar bear mother and a grizzly bear father. It is the first documented case in the wild, though it was known that this hybrid was biologically possible and other ursid hybrids have been bred in zoos in the past.
On 8 April 2010, David Kuptana, an Inuvialuit hunter from the community of Ulukhaktok on Victoria Island shot what he thought was a polar bear. After inspecting the bear and having its DNA tested, it was discovered that the bear's mother was a grizzly-polar hybrid and the father was a grizzly bear. The bear possesses physical characteristics intermediate between grizzlies and polar bears, such as brown fur on its paws, long claws, and a grizzly-like head.
Between 2012 and 2014 another six hybrid bears were either killed by hunters or live-captured by biologists. Samples were collected from all six, and genetic analysis confirmed both their hybrid status and their family relationships. The eight hybrids identified to date include four first generation (F1, 50:50) and four grizzly bear backcross individuals (75:25 grizzly:polar bear). A single F1 female was the mother of all four backcross individuals, and a single female polar bear was the mother of all four F1s, and thus the grandmother of all four backcross bears. Two male grizzlies mated with the female polar bear to give rise to the four F1s, with one grizzly bear apparently mating with the polar bear in two different years (two of the F1s are full siblings, but born three years apart). The same two male brown bears both mated with the F1 female to produce the four backcross individuals, with three litter mates being sired by one male and a single, older 3/4 grizzly bear coming from a mating between the F1 female and her father.
It is hard to know whether these events are a harbinger of the breakdown of a species barrier, or just an unusual anecdote, since all confirmed cases to date trace to the unusual mate choice of a single polar bear.
The Arviat bear
It was widely reported that a bear shot in 2016, near Arviat, on the western shore of Hudson Bay, was a hybrid, with news agencies going so far as to describe this as an outcome of climate change. This bear was light in colour, but 'blonde' grizzly bears are common on the Barren Grounds, and the Arviat bear did not have other features characteristic of hybrids. The Arviat bear was subsequently confirmed by genetic analysis to be a pure brown bear, although few news organizations that had published the original story provided this update.
Range expansion of brown bears as a possible contributing factor
Although a grizzly bear was killed on Banks Island in 1951, it has until recently been rare for this species to stray far north of the coast of mainland Canada. In 1991 one or more grizzly bears were documented hunting seals and polar bears on the sea ice near Melville island, over 500 km from the mainland coast. In 2003 and 2004 a geological team working on Melville Island obtained photographic and DNA evidence of a grizzly bear in the area. Their report also collated information on several other sightings in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
Grizzly bears have apparently also been extending their range east across the Barren Grounds towards Hudson Bay, and south towards northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Between 2003 and 2008 seven individuals were spotted in Wapusk National Park south of Churchill, Manitoba, an area used by polar bears for maternity dens and as a refuge during the ice-free season on Hudson Bay.
The genetic methods used to confirm the family relationships and ancestry of the hybrid bears from northern Canada date back to the early 1990s, and are not powerful enough to reveal ancient history. However, the newer methods of genomics analyze thousands of sites in the genome, allowing the history of individual fragments of chromosomes to be traced back to particular populations (or species in the case of hybridization). Genomics studies of brown bears and polar bears have revealed that gene flow from polar bears into brown bears — but not the other way around — was widespread in time and space during the Pleistocene. Of particular note, the bears living on the islands of the Alexander Archipelago of southeast Alaska trace their maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA entirely to polar bears, but over 90% of their nuclear genome to brown bears. This appears to reflect a process in which a population of polar bears was left behind as the species retreated northwards at the end of the last ice age, with male brown bears subsequently introducing genes from the adjacent mainland, but female brown bears being generally unable or unwilling to swim across several km of open ocean to reach the islands (thus the lack of exchange of mitochondrial DNA).
Such studies have not been limited to polar bears and brown bears, and it now appears that gene flow between species has been widespread during the evolution of the living species of bears.
Since the 2006 discovery placed the hybrid into the spotlight, the media have referred to this animal with several portmanteau names, such as pizzly bear, grolar bear, and polizzly, but there is no consensus on the use of any one of these terms. Canadian wildlife officials have suggested calling the hybrid "nanulak", taken from the Inuit names for polar bear (nanuk) and grizzly bear (aklak).
By one convention, the name of the sire comes first in such combinations: the offspring of a male polar bear and a female grizzly would be the suggested nanulak or a "pizzly bear", while the offspring of a male grizzly and a female polar bear would be a "grolar bear" or possibly an aknuk. If the remains of MacFarlane's 1864 specimen—which was validly described according to ICZN rules—were traced and confirmed to be such a hybrid by ancient DNA techniques, the scientific name Ursus × inopinatus would be available for these animals.
Two grizzly–polar hybrid cubs (one female and one male) were born at Osnabrück Zoo in Osnabrück, Germany, in 2004, and their physical traits are generally an intermediate between the polar bear and the grizzly bear. For example, their bodies are smaller than polar bears, but larger than grizzlies, while their heads fall between the broader grizzly head and the leaner polar bear head. They have long necks like polar bears, but small shoulder humps like grizzlies. The soles of their feet are partially covered in hair; polar bears have hair-covered soles, which act as insulation, and grizzlies have hairless soles.
Similarly, the hair of the hybrids exhibits a pattern of hollowness, which blends the traits of polar bears and grizzlies. In cross section, the hair of polar bears is hollow, while the hair of grizzlies is either solid or has small hollow regions. This varies according to which part of the grizzly the hair is taken from. In the hybrid male, the paw hair was solid, but the dark back hair was somewhat hollow, albeit with "smaller empty regions than found in polar bear hair". The hair of the female hybrid, "contains a range of hollow regions".
The hybrids demonstrated behavior more similar to polar bears than grizzlies. They stomped toys similar to how polar bears break ice, and hurled bags to the side "as polar bears may hurl prey". Grizzlies given the same bags do not demonstrate this hurling behavior. The hybrids were also observed lying down similar to polar bears: on their bellies with rear legs splayed.
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