Bear puzzle

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2006, 12:00am

A sport hunter from Idaho named Jim Martell was on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic last month, tracking the largest land carnivore in North America. He bagged a bear that has made headlines across the continent. Adult male polar bears weigh up to 800kg - as much as a small car. The hunt cost Martell C$50,000 ($350,830) so he was delighted with his kill.

Yet, when he and his Inuit guide approached the big beast, they realised that it looked a little odd. It didn't have the pure white fur or the narrow, elongated head and neck of a polar bear. So they called in local wildlife officers, who promptly seized the carcass and threatened to charge Mr Martell with killing a grizzly bear without a permit. That could have landed him in jail for up to a year.

Grizzlies are roughly half the size of polar bears, their coats vary from dark brown to blond and their range runs from the Rocky Mountains to the northern barrens. In recent years, however, Inuit hunters say more are foraging for food in the high Arctic. This is the traditional territory of the polar bear, which hunts seals, walruses and other marine mammals on the sea ice and dens near the Arctic coast.

A sample of the dead bear's flesh was sent for DNA testing, and the results surprised everyone. They revealed that Mr Martell had killed a hybrid grizzly-polar bear, the first one ever recorded in the wild. The hide was returned to Mr Martell, who has been excoriated in the Canadian press for killing such a unique creature for sport. Critics aside, he is the envy of hunters everywhere and has a unique new trophy for his collection.

Scientists believe the polar bear evolved from the brown or grizzly bear roughly 250,000 years ago. It is now a separate species. The grizzly will prey on moose, deer and caribou, but 90 per cent of its diet is vegetation. The polar bear, by contrast, thrives on other creatures, particularly the fat and skin of its prey. Grizzlies will attack humans if they are hungry enough and feel threatened. But they aren't hunters of humans, unlike polar bears, which will stalk, attack and eat warmly dressed bipeds if given the opportunity.

It isn't clear whether the discovery of the hybrid indicates a broader trend is under way. Global warming is melting ice on the Arctic Ocean and making it more difficult for polar bears to hunt offshore. As for the grizzly, human encroachment may be driving it farther north. Conflict between the two species isn't unusual, but mating is: grizzlies and polar bears have been mated in captivity, but there are no confirmed reports of the two breeding in the wild.

Meanwhile, a naming debate has broken out in workplaces across the country. The leading contenders so far: 'pizzly bear' and 'grolar bear'.