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Why are black bears changing color?

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are one of the most common bear species in North America. They are typically black in color, hence their name, but in recent years more reports have surfaced of black bears with brown, blond, and even white fur. Scientists have been investigating why some black bear populations are exhibiting these unusual coat colors.

Reports of Color Morphs

While black is the most common color phase, black bears can display a variety of coat colors including cinnamon, chocolate, blonde, blue-gray, and even white. The white phase, known as a kermode or spirit bear, is found in coastal British Columbia.

Color Morph Description
Cinnamon Reddish-brown fur
Chocolate Dark brown fur
Blonde Light cream or yellowish fur
Blue-gray Blue-tinted gray fur
White All white or cream-colored fur

While less common in the eastern parts of their range, these color morphs are increasingly being documented in certain black bear populations in the west. In Yellowstone National Park, blonde and cinnamon bears now make up around 6% of the population. And in parts of coastal British Columbia, 25-40% of black bears are white spirit bears.

Genetics & Evolution

So what explains these unusual color patterns in black bears? The answer has to do with genetics and evolution.

Like most mammals, a black bear’s coat color is determined by the levels and distribution of the pigment melanin. Melanin comes in two forms: eumelanin which produces black/brown pigments, and pheomelanin which produces red/yellow pigments.

The Agouti gene controls the relative levels of eumelanin and pheomelanin produced in the fur. The recessive nonagouti allele (a) suppresses pheomelanin production, resulting in all black fur. The dominant Agouti allele (A) allows pheomelanin expression, producing red/brown coats.

So black bears with the AA or Aa genotypes can express pheomelanin and display these lighter color morphs. The white kermode bear is caused by another recessive allele that inhibits all melanin production.

These color alleles likely arose through random genetic mutations millennia ago. Usually black fur provided the best camouflage against predators and prey, so the black nonagouti alleles proliferated through bear populations. But in certain isolated habitats, these rarer alleles were able to persist and even thrive.

Advantages of Color Morphs

Researchers are still investigating why the frequency of these color morphs seems to be increasing in recent decades. Several theories have been proposed:


In snowy mountain environments, blonde or brown coats may provide better camouflage from prey during the long winter months. This can increase hunting success rates and survival.

Mating Advantage

Unusual coat colors may be selected for mating. Novelty could provide an advantage in attracting mates, allowing rare colors to spread.

Founder Effects

Random founder events, where a few bears colonize a new habitat, can skew allele frequencies. If several brown bears colonized an island, their colors would dominate the population.

Genetic Drift

In small isolated populations, random fluctuations in colors can drift over generations. Genetic drift likely explains the high frequency of white bears in coastal BC.

Climate Change

Warmer winters with less snow may reduce the need for pure black coats. As habitats change, variability in fur colors could help bears adapt.

The exact evolutionary mechanisms likely involve a combination of these factors. More research is needed to understand what’s driving the spread of these color morphs.

Distribution of Color Morphs

The distribution and frequency of color morphs varies across different black bear populations:

Location Common Color Morphs
Eastern North America Mostly black
Western North America Increasing brown, blond, and cinnamon
Coastal British Columbia 25-40% white kermode bears
Alaska and Yukon Territories Blonde and brown colors common

In general, black is still the most common coloration. But lighter color morphs seem to be growing in frequency in the western parts of the black bear’s range. Moremonitoring is needed to track these trends over time.

Impacts on Ecosystems

How might an increase in color morphs impact ecosystems? Here are some potential ecological effects:

Predator-Prey Interactions

Differently colored bears may have advantages hunting certain prey or eluding certain predators. This could alter predator-prey dynamics.


Novel coat colors could affect competition between bear species. For example, brown black bears may compete more directly with grizzly bears.

Mating Patterns

Unusual color types could change mating behaviors and reproductive success. Hybridization between bear species may increase.

Human Interactions

Atypical colored bears may lose some fear of humans, increasing bear-human conflicts. But they may also elicit greater public interest.

More research is needed to quantify these ecosystem impacts as bear demographics shift. Tracking color proportions over time can indicateAdaptation trends and changes in bear ecology.


Reports of atypical coloration in black bears have increased in recent decades, particularly in western North America. These color morphs likely stem from genetic variations and mutations that arose long ago. Evolutionary processes like natural selection, founder events, and genetic drift probablycontributed to their spread in certain isolated bear populations.

The exact evolutionary advantages of these color morphs is still under investigation. Camouflage, mating selection, and climate adaptation may play roles. More monitoring is needed to track the frequencies of color morphs over time.

As bear demographics shift, potential impacts on ecosystems and human activity should be assessed. But overall, increased color diversity seems to reflect the remarkable adaptability of black bears to changing environments.