ULUKHAKTOK, N.W.T. — Researchers in the Northwest Territories say they may have found the first recorded case of a second-generation hybrid polar-grizzly bear in the wild, but an expert says it's not clear what the significance may be.
Government officials in the Northwest Territories said a hunter, David Kuptana, shot an unusual-looking bear during a hunting trip April 8 near Banks Island, in the Inuvik region.
He provided federal scientists with samples to see what type of bear it was.
Officials with the territorial government said those tests showed the dead bear was a hybrid -- the offspring of a female hybrid polar-grizzly mix who had mated with a male grizzly.
Scientists confirmed this by comparing the dead bear's DNA with that of local polar bear and grizzly populations, and that of a male polar-grizzly hybrid, which was shot on Banks Island in 2006.
"It's unclear from a single incident what the significance is," said Mitch Taylor, a polar bear expert who is an adjunct professor with the Department of Geography at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.
"But one thing that is clear is that the (grizzly and polar) bears are not reproductively isolated. This is the second time a bear has been taken that was a mix so it's apparent that it does happen in the wild," he said.
Government officials in the northern territory say the find confirms that a female hybrid bear in the region is reproducing with other bears.
The two types of bears don't usually interbreed, Taylor said, because grizzlies breed later in the season than their polar cousins. The discovery of this second-generation hybrid polar-grizzly bear confirms what scientists already know, he said.
"(It's an) interesting discovery, kind of confirms what we've known all along about the close relationship between grizzly bears and polar bears," Taylor said.
With such a small sample size of the hybrid bears that have been discovered so far, it's unclear if ecological changes in the region are throwing polar bears and grizzlies together more often, he said.
"If we were to see this continue and more hybrids show up, it would be sort of increasing evidence for some ecological change there...but it's difficult to interpret one or two sightings," Taylor said.
Some grizzlies in the North have even taken to hunting seals on the sea ice, in much the same way as polar bears do. Grizzlies have even killed and eaten polar bears in some cases, the scientist said. Grizzlies usually go back to hunting on land once there's warmer weather.
If more hybrid bears are discovered in Canada's north, it could raise questions about whether climate change may be a factor, Taylor said.
"I think a lot of people will wonder if the fact that we didn't see polar bear hybrids until we saw Arctic warming, if those two circumstances are related. There will be conjecture that somehow the bears are being put into contact more often now," he said.
There's just too little information known about these hybrid bears to draw such conclusions without doing a lot more research, Taylor said.
"It's also possible it's just a coincidence."