Home: Scrying: Unbearably Strange News

Unbearably Strange News

May 12, 2006

Before I get to the Friday Fractal, I’d like to share a strange article I ran across earlier today. I say “strange” mostly for my own sake… the article ties together a week of previously unrelated posts. It was strange news, anyways, but I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a little recap:

Monday, I wrote about speciation. There, I described how two distinct species could be considered the same under Ernst Mayr’s definition. I also described how this creates a problem if one group is not considered endangered because they can breed with a different group elsewhere.

Tuesday was simply strange snow, in what seemed like the wrong place at the wrong time.

Geronimo rides a Cadillac at the 1904 World's Fair in St. LouisThen, yesterday, I talked about the life of Geronimo and his skull. I didn’t discuss much about his life as a prisoner, but today, this seemed relevant. After he was captured by the U.S. Army, he was allowed to visit the St. Louis World’s Fair. In his autobiography, he described his reactions to the unfamiliar sights, including this:

I have never considered bears very intelligent, except in their wild habits, but I had never before seen a white bear. In one of the shows a man had a white bear that was as intelligent as a man. He would do whatever he was told -carry a log on his shoulder, just as a man would; then, when he was told, would put it down again. He did many other things, and seemed to know exactly what his keeper said to him. I am sure that no grizzly bear could be trained to do these things.

In my opinion, he made some rather keen observations of the differences between wild grizzly bears and what must have been a trained polar bear. Here’s where today’s news comes in, uniting speciation troubles, strange occurrences, and the differences between bears: (Warning: A grisly image follows. Worse than my puns, I swear.)

Grizzly bears and polar bears can produce fertile offspring, and have now been doing it in the wild.

Yup.  Speciation—> strange encounters—> polar bears vs. Grizzlies = Polargrizz cubs. Like you didn’t see that one coming.

From The Boston Globe:

A DNA test has confirmed what zoologists, hunters, and aboriginal trackers in the far northern reaches of Canada have dreamed of for years: the first documented case of a grizzly-polar bear in the wild.

Unfortunately, they discovered the hybrid because someone shot it:
Roger Kuptana, an Inuit tracker from the Northwest Territories, suspected the American hunter he was guiding had shot a hybrid bear after noticing its white fur was spotted brown and it had the long claws and slightly humped back of a grizzly.

The bear’s corpse was seized by the Canadian Wildlife Service, since grizzlies are a protected species—the Hunter Jim Martel and standing over the polar/grizzly bear hybrid he killed. hunter, Jim Martel, only had a $45,450 license to shoot polar bears. If the bear had been identified as a grizzly, he would have had to have paid a fine of $909. (Does that not seem to add up very well to anyone else?)

A hybrid was not altogether an unexpected sight:

‘‘It’s something we’ve all known was theoretically possible because their habitats overlap a little bit and their breeding seasons overlap a little bit,” said Ian Stirling, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Edmonton, Alberta. ‘‘It’s the first time it’s known to have happened in the wild.”

….Stirling said polar bears and grizzlies have mated in zoos and their offspring are fertile, but there had been no documented case in the wild.

So, again, we see the futility of defining an individual species by reproductive viability alone. Shall we assume Ursus maritimus (polar bears) are the same thing as Ursus arctos horribilis (grizzly bears)? If so, then should we not bother to protect polar bears as their habitat melts, because we have plenty of grizzlies who don’t mind the heat? Tell that to the kids at the fair.

For the record, we don’t really have “plenty of grizzlies” either. The grizzly bear is on the threatened species list in the U.S. and endangered in parts of Canada. Perhaps (at least before Martel shot it) both endangered groups of bears were considering adaptive options.

The AP article didn’t speculate. They admitted the two bears’ habitats crossed in several areas, but expressed doubts about such intimate contact:

That might explain how a grizzly got to the region, but few can explain how it managed to get along with a polar bear long enough to mate.

It isn’t so far fetched to me… Maybe as the climate gets rough, so does the bear sex.

Image credits: Geronimo at the 1904 World’s Fair photo via From Revolution to Reconstruction. Jim Martel and the bear photo via the Toronto Star .