People have been spotting strange looking bears in the Arctic for the past few years. Then, in 2010, David Kuptana of Victoria Island stumbled upon one of the mystery bears. It looked like a polar bear but had specific traits that were clearly not from the species.
With the rising temperatures, people began blaming climate change for the weird bear, but that didn’t explain its origin. As scientists began to research, what they found was shocking.
This Story Begins On The Coast Of The Arctic Circle
This strange bear story begins in the frozen Canadian North along the coast of the Arctic Circle, Victoria Island. Here, the temperatures regularly go below freezing, and the locals are no strangers to long winter nights.
Although this island is the ninth-largest in the world, it has a population of 2,000, including David Kuptana. Considering the area is almost the same size as Idaho, it’s amazing that a bear was able to find the inhabitants.
Polar Bears Are Part Of The Native Culture
People up north have a different relationship with polar bears than those who have only seen them in pictures and at the zoo. To natives, the animal is part of their culture. They will hunt these bears for meat and use their fur for boots and pants.
As the Arctic temperatures begin to warm up, polar bears start to spend more time on land, bringing them closer to the humans who would hunt them. This is how David Kuptana made his discovery.
David’s Community Consists Of A Few Hundred People
The coastal community of Ulukhaktok where David was born only consists of a few hundred people. The village is far north of Montana and situated along the Northwest Passage, the northern sea route between the Atlantis and Pacific oceans.
Because the community is so remote, groceries tend to be very expensive. The high prices have most natives living off of the land, which includes the animals that roam it, such as polar bears.
Everything Changed In April 2010
The Ulukhaktok community David is apart of receives around a dozen polar bear hunting tags each year. Personally, David’s been hunting for years, so it’s safe to say he’s seen all sorts of wildlife. That all changed in April 2010.
On one fateful day in April, David and his wife set out on their hunting trip, per usual, hopping on their snowmobiles, driving over the frozen seas, and heading to a cabin on an island.
The Cabin Was Destroyed
When David and his wife arrived at the cabin, it was obvious that it had been broken into. Most likely, by an animal looking for food. They decided it was best not to stay, driving off towards another cabin on the island.
The problem was that this cabin had also been ransacked! Only this time they could make out bear tracks around the cabin. Not to mention, a window was broken and the mattress had been dragged outside.
They Moved On To Another Cabin
David and his wife decided that it wasn’t safe to stay at the second cabin, moving on to a third, then a fourth and fifth location. All of the cabins had been broken into and were in complete disarray! It was unlike anything he’d seen a polar bear do.
As they made their way to the sixth cabin they stumbled across something different. The animal was still at the cabin! Only, it didn’t look quite like a polar bear.
The Polar Bear Habitat Is Swiftly Changing
Polar bears mostly live in Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and some northern Islands. They’re terrific swimmers and do most of their hunting in the icy waters of the arctic, depending on the sea ice where their main prey, seals, tend to live.
When the climate gets warmer and the ice caps melt, polar bears wander on land and live off of their fat reserves. These animals have a set territory near the shorelines, a habitat that is swiftly beginning to change.
Grizzly Bears Are Beginning To Move Territories
Grizzly bears mainly live in North America, Europe, and in the northern regions of Asia. These animals have various habitats, ranging from woodlands to prairies. In northern Canada, they’ve historically stuck to the mainlands subarctic forests and tundras, not venturing towards the islands where the polar bears call home.
Now, with temperatures beginning to rise, the grizzly inhabitants of northern Canada might have to think about a move. The habitat that they once called home is changing and with it, their food supply.
Grizzlies Are Breaking Tradition
With the climate changing and no ice caps to live on, polar bears are beginning to spend more time on the mainland. Grizzlies, on the other hand, are moving north into what has been, traditionally, polar bear territory.
After hibernation, grizzles go across the ice in search of food. While the females of the species stay put, and polar bears are not venturing out of their territory, it’s purely the male grizzlies who are breaking the status quo.
Polar Bears Are Made For Their Environment
Both grizzlies and polar bears are made for their respective habitats. While the former has a boxy head, polar bears are sleek, allowing them to easily dive into the water after their prey. Also, grizzlies paws are only padded, whereas polar bears’ feet are covered in fur, making it easier for them to walk across slick ice.
One of the biggest differences is the fur. Both species have fur that helps them blend into their environments: grizzles are brown like a forest while polar bears a white like ice. So, what would a hybrid of these two bears look like?
David Chased After The Mystery Bear
The bear David and his wife stumbled across at the sixth cabin was nothing like they’d seen before. It was strange, with blonde fur, and dark paws and eyes. It certainly wasn’t a polar bear, but it was still a wild animal. So, when David and his wife got close, it ran.
David chased after the bear on his snowmobile, thinking it was a grizzly bear. He was scared the bear was going to head towards his community, so he did the only thing he could to save it.
They Didn’t Know What To Call The Mystery Bear
David shot the bear and brought it to the local government office in town for inspection. He’d never seen a grizzly before, so he wasn’t sure what to expect. The officer took one look at the bear and realized that it was neither a polar bear nor a grizzly.
So, what was it? There was only one word that seemed to fit the odd-looking animal’s bill. You’ll never believe what they called it.
Tips And Taps, The German Hybrids
The government officer in the tiny Ulukhaktok community believed the bear to be a hybrid. Just to be sure, they sent the animal’s DNA out to be tested. What they learned was that 20 of these bears were bred in captivity, and two of them lived in Zoo Osnabrück in Germany. Their names are Tips and Taps (pronounced Tops).
The cubs’ parents were kept in the same enclosure for 24 years before they mated, creating the two hybrids. Was David’s mystery bear the same as Tips and Taps?
The First Wild Hybrid Was Caught in 2006
The first wild hybrid was spotted by a hunter in 2006, on the Banks Island, Northern Territories, Canada. Banks Island is northwest of Victoria Island, only being separated by a channel of water.
There were stories about odd-colored bears living close to polar bear territory, but DNA was never tested to confirm they were hybrids. The 2006 bear changed that when it was confirmed to be a part polar bear and part grizzly. Even so, scientists didn’t think it was anything special.
The Third Hybrid Was Confirmed In 2016
Skipping over David’s 2010 bear, the third hybrid was confirmed in 2016 in Arviat, Canada. By the time the hunter found the hybrid, scientists were beginning to hypothesize about the effects of climate change and how it was bringing the two bear species together.
They also thought the interbreeding was interesting because bears can spend days courting one another. And when there are two species in the mix, it usually ends in a fight and not a courtship.
Grizzly + Polar Bear = Pizzly Bear
Scientists believe that the hybrids are actually a mix of favorable characteristics from each bear. It’s almost as though both species knew they were going to have to adapt to the changing northern temperatures. Unfortunately, the hybrids, or “pizzly bears,” traits are not the best for either environment.
They have long claws and somewhat hairy feet, so they’re not great on ice. Also, some patches of fur are partially hollow, while others aren’t, making it hard to blend into their environment.
Hybrids Are Very Rare
Back in David’s community, the government officer suspected that the mystery bear was a hybrid, but he could never have guessed what the DNA results were going to show. It turns out that the mystery bears mother was a pizzly, and his father was 100 percent grizzly.
These types of bears are rare and almost never seen in the wild. The mystery bear was also the first tangible evidence that hybrids could reproduce. But you’ll never guess how these hybrids started.
It All Goes Back To Polar Bear 10960
In 2017, it was discovered that all wild pizzly bears could be traced back to one specific mama: polar bear 10960. After extensive DNA testing, it was concluded that the polar bears and grizzlies weren’t mating because of the changing climate, but rather that they were all related.
10960 mated with two separate grizzlies, having a total of three litters. Each litter was tiny, with only one to three cubs. But why was she mating with grizzlies and not other polar bears?
10960 Had A Type
Scientists aren’t entirely sure why polar bear 10960 mated with the two grizzlies. One thing is certain though, and that was her mating ritual. When female polar bears are ready to mate, their feet give off a strong smell. They’ll walk through the snow leaving smelly tracks, which males tend to follow.
It’s speculated that the grizzlies just happened to find the tracks and follow them. But 10960 clearly had a type, because she mated with these bears not once, but three times, years apart.
10960’s Kids Liked To Keep It In The Family
When scientists learned that all pizzlies were part of one family they weren’t prepared for a bear version of Game of Thrones. It turns out the 10960 passed on her grizzly preference to her daughter because the daughter mated with the same two grizzly bears as her mom. Yikes.
Since the bears “kept it in the family,” scientists can conclude that David’s mystery bear is actually the grand-bear of polar bear 10960.
The Pizzly Isn’t Well Suited For The Wild
While not every pizzly looks the same, they do share common traits. The biggest giveaway that a bear is a pizzly is their fur, which is going to be blonde or light brown with dark paws and tiny tail.
Their body size is also in between the larger polar bear and the smaller grizzly. Pizzlies also have a polar bear’s long neck while sporting back humps like a grizzly. All in all, pizzlies aren’t suited for either bears’ environment.
Playtime Behaviors Brought To You By Tips And Taps
Not a lot is known about wild hybrids’ personalities. So, we’re going to go back to Tips and Taps. Both of the German hybrids were born in captivity, but when it came time to play, they did so more like their polar bear father (wild fathers are grizzly). Scientists speculate that the same goes for those in the wild.
Tips and Taps would stomp on their toys, similar to how polar bears stomp on ice. They would also toss bags across the room as if it were prey. Grizzlies, on the other hand, don’t seem to want to throw the bags.
There Are No Polar Fathers In The Wild For A Few Reasons
As far as scientists can tell, there are no hybrids with polar bear fathers in the wild. There are a few reasons why this might be. The first is because female grizzlies don’t tend to stray far from their territory, while males will go off in search of food.
Another reason could be that male polar bears are historically hunted a lot more than females. It’s possible that 10960 didn’t have any other options within her territory.
A Hybrids Name Depends On The Father
While most hybrids are going to be called a pizzly bear, there are instances, such as David’s mystery bear, where another name could be used. David’s bear has a pizzly mother, instead of a full-bred polar bear, making it more grizzly than anything.
The name given to a hybrid with more grizzly in it can be called a grolar bear. Pizzly is still very much acceptable, though! It seems as though these hybrids take more from their parents than partial names.
Hybrids Are highly Aggressive
Even though Tips and Taps were behaving more like polar bears, that doesn’t mean they don’t have other qualities. As David saw with the hybrid ransacking the cabins, it showed these bears are more aggressive than your typical polar bear.
While polar bears are seen to be more aggressive than grizzlies, this means that hybrids have worse anger issues than both parents. One of the hunters from David’s community, Pat Epakohak, stated, “the polar bear will try to get away. There is more danger with a hybrid.”
The People Of Ulukhaktok Have Mixed Feelings
After a few hybrids were found in the Northern territory islands, the people in David’s community began discussing how to proceed with the new species. As most meetings tend to go, there were mixed feelings.
While some wanted to hunt both the hybrids and grizzlies off Victoria Island, others wanted to leave them. Others thought the hybrids would be a good tourist attraction, but this route was unlikely considering the value of a hybrids coat.
Pizzly Bear Hybrids Are Fertile
Despite the incestuous nature of the origin of the hybrid, 10960’s grand-bear taught the scientific community something very important about pizzly bears. David’s mystery bear was the first evidence that the second generation of hybrid bears was possible!
Typically, hybrids species are infertile and are unable to produce offspring; take the mule, for example. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for the pizzly and grolar bears! Maybe we’ll see more of these hybrids in the future.
Both Bears Share The Others DNA
While the modern hybrids are a result of three bears, one polar bear, and two grizzlies, it seems as though they were mating thousands of years ago. Today, both grizzlies and polar bears each have a bit of each other’s DNA.
Some grizzlies in southeast Alaska have as much as ten percent of polar bear DNA. So it seems as though these two species have been kanoodling long before the first hybrid was found in 2006!