Grizzly-Polar Bear Hybrid Found -- But What Does It Mean?

May 16, 2006

The animal confirmed last week to be half polar bear, half grizzly bear is certainly weird, scientists say, but he's not necessarily a symbol of global warming or anything else.

Last week, DNA analysis confirmed that the bear's father was a grizzly and his mother was a polar bear.

The bear's white fur was interspersed with brown patches. He also had long claws, a concave facial profile, and a humped back—all grizzly characteristics.

"It's of interest because it's rare, but that's kind of it," said Rosa Meehan, the chief of marine mammal management with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, Alaska.

"I don't think there's more to it than that."

Meehan is overseeing a review of how changing environmental conditions in the Arctic are affecting polar bears. The study aims to determine whether the animals warrant federal protection in the U.S. as an endangered species.

She says the hybrid sheds no light on the question of the species' possible endangered status or on global warming's potential role in the species' decline.

David Paetkau is president of Wildlife Genetics International, the Nelson, Canada-based firm that confirmed the bear is a hybrid. He says it is too early to conclude anything about the discovery.

"This is one instance," Paetkau said. "As a scientist, you can't say anything about one instance, other than, What should we name it?"

Unofficial names include "grolar bear" and "pizzly," according to Ian Stirling, a research scientist and polar bear expert with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Edmonton.

Stirling said grizzly bears have been showing up in the Canada's western Arctic as far north as Banks Island and Victoria Island in the province of Nunavut (see these islands in the upper left of our Nunavut map) periodically for the past 50 years.

The hybrid, he said, is "definitely not" a sign of climate change.

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