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Ininkari Brown Bear– Japan’s White Colored Brown Bear and the Plight of the Bear Educator

Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul shares a report of the only white brown bears found anywhere in the world and addresses the plight of the bear and the bear educator. The study investigating the distribution of white-colored brown bears inhabiting the Kuril Islands was published in the most recent issue of the journal Ursus. “It is a grizzly...

Ininkari Brown Bear (Photo by Tikhon Shpilenok; Courtesy of Y. Sato)

Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul shares a report of the only white brown bears found anywhere in the world and addresses the plight of the bear and the bear educator. The study investigating the distribution of white-colored brown bears inhabiting the Kuril Islands was published in the most recent issue of the journal Ursus.

“It is a grizzly and it is also a brown bear!” exclaims one of our education interns as she corrects another visitor at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center . The patron, peering over at a grizzly and two coastal brown bears frolicking in the water, swats a few mosquitoes and lingers– still confused. Erin Leighton prepares to handle the onslaught of fallacious comments that begin spewing from the patrons at 8:00 AM and continue unabated until closing 12 hours later.

Despite a number of interperative signs, overzealous visitors from the continental US and abroad share an abundance of misinformation with us on a daily basis.  It is not in vain. In fact, the misinformation provides direction for the new B.E.A.R.S. (Bear Education Awarensess Research Sanctuary) center and relevent curricula being developed for our campus and its programs. We aim to educate the masses about Alaska’s three species of bears and the conservation efforts for all 8 species of ursids.

I’ll provide another example of misinformation: Our education staff has frequent difficulty convincing visitors that coat color is a poor determinant of  bear species in North America.  

With new information on white brown bears, we can further validate the argument that the pelages of both American black bears (Ursus americanus) and brown bears (Ursus arctos) or “grizzlies” come in a number of color variations. 

Grizzly Bear (NGS stock footage)

Hopefully this post will also clarify just what a grizzly bear (U. a. horribilis) is for those of you who find this all confusing! And it is confusing. It helps if you can remember that all grizzlies are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzlies. 

The most commonly used characteristics for identifying North American species are the easily discernable differences in dorsal musculature and cranial/rostral morphology. The hump on the back or shoulders of the grizzly enhances the bears’ ability to dig and run. 

Whereas brown bears (grizzlies) have a concave ‘dished’ facial profile, black bears sport a  ‘roman nose.’  Unfortunately, black bear hunters often mistake grizzlies for black bears which has implications for conserving and managing the more vulnerable brown bear.

American Black Bears (NSG stock footage)

Traditionally, the term “grizzly” was a reference to the North American brown bears of the American Rocky Mountains, Interior of Alaska, and Northern and Western Canada–the current range of the grizzly bear in Interior North America. Grizzly, also called silvertip bear, refers to the white or silver tips of the bears’ guard hairs which gives them a grizzled appearance. In a broader context and more recently, the name “grizzly” has been applied to any brown bear living in an inland or interior region any where in the world. Some people simply use “brown bear” and “grizzly” interchangeably to refer to this species–the most widely distributed of bear species and among the most widely distributed of terrestrial carnivores.

Here at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center we exhibit two subspecies of brown bear–Kodiak (U. a. middendorffi) and grizzly (U.a. horribilis). Both are representatives of one clade based on recent studies examining the phylogenetics of Ursidae using mitochondrial DNA.

It’s a suprising, but common misconception that one can distinguish an American black bear from a brown (grizzly) bear or a polar bear by its coat color.  This is not only surprising, but to some, perhaps a bit worrisome.  Coat color is not a good indicator of species, at least in North America.  As you will see in this post, both black and brown bears exhibit coat color variation from black to white and almost everywhere in between. 

American Black Bear (NGS stock footage)

Here in Alaska, where all three species of North American bears are found, distinguishing among species is important. Knowing the difference between the two species–black and brown– may help in responding appropriately to a bear encounter in the wild–or may provide some insight into your surroundings.   It is interesting to me that so many enthusiasts of the great outdoors, even those in Alaska, have trouble distinguishing between black bears and brown bears.

Manchurian (Ussuri) Brown Bear, "Blackie" (Courtesy of the San Diego Zoo)

Both black bears and brown bears range in color from black to light blond. Furthermore, age and nutritional status can also influence the condition and color of the coat. 

Color morph variation in American black bears is probably more commonly known among Westerners than the color variation observed in brown bears, despite the tremendous variation observed across the range of the brown bear (Ursus arctos).

For instance, the white Kermode bear of British Columbia and the blue Glacier bear of  Southeast Alaska come to mind immediately when I think of color morph variation in bears–American black bears.  And don’t forget that there can be color variation even among siblings.

A recent study of the bears on islands northeast of Japan confirms the existence of a white color morph found nowhere else in the world. Recognized since the 1800’s, the recently named Ininkari brown bears of the southern Kuril Islands, are white on just the upper half of the body.

The Southern Kuril Islands sit on the northwestern rim of the Pacific belt–also known as the Pacific Ring of Fire.  The archipelago extends northeast from Hokkaidō, Japan to Kamchatka, Russia, separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the North Pacific Ocean. The archipelago remains the source of a sovereignty dispute between Japan and Russia, although Russia currently has jusidiction over the region.. 

A paucity of terrestrial mammal fauna inhabit the central islands, but the largest of the southernmost and northernmost islands are inhabited by deer, fox, bear, marten, a diversity of rodents and one time by a species of wild cat–now-domesticated and known as the Kurilian Bobtail breed.

It is the Ininkari bear– the white color morph of the brown bear that caught my attention in an article published in a recent issue of Ursus–the peer review publication of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. In this paper Yoshikazu Sato and his colleagues investigated the distribution of this white color morph of brown bear found no where else in the world.

Polar Bear (NGS stock footage)

Through interviews and literature surveys they determined that this white brown bear was found only on the Kuril Islands. According to Sato et al. the restricted range of the Ininkari bear is due to lack of predators and low hunting pressure on the bears of the Southern Kuril Islands.

For comparison, I’ve provided photos of  “Blackie”–a Manchurian brown bear or black grizzly who resides at the San Diego Zoo in an enclosure next to two grizzlies or North American brown bears. Color variation is also common among these brown bears of Northeastern Asia, not to be confused with Asiatic black bears.   

Relationships between coat color and habitat, weight and litter size have been suggested with habitat being the dominant influence in color phenotypes in North American bears.

Kodiak Bear (NGS stock footage)

Although 86 subspecies of brown bears have been proposed, a traditional taxonomic reference on mammal species  published in 2005 recognized 16 subspecies of extant and extinct brown bear. 

Examples of extant brown bear subspecies that range across parts of Asia and the Far East include the Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos), Tibetan blue bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus), Gobi brown bear (Ursus arctos gobiensis), Ussuri or Amur brown bear (Ursus arctos lasiotus), Eastern Siberian brown bear (Ursus arctos collaris), Kamchatka brown bear or Far Eastern brown bear (Ursus arctos beringianus), Himalayan brown bear, (Ursus arctos isabellinus) and Syrian brown bear (Ursus arctos syriacus). 

Manchurian (Ussuri) Brown Bear, "Blackie" (Source unknown)

As alluded to earlier, color variation from dark brown to white may be observed not only at the subspecific level, and regionally among metapopulations, but it is also observed among littermates.

More recent DNA analyses showed five mitochondrial DNA lineage groups (genetic clades) exist: Clade I from southern Scandinavia and southern Europe; Clade II from the ABC Islands (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof); Clade III from eastern Europe, Asia and western Alaska; Clade IV from southern Canada and the lower 48 states of the USA; and Clade V from northern Canada and eastern Alaska. 

The term clade in the context of biological systematics is a single “branch” on the phylogenetic or evolutionary tree. Cladistics once reffered to as phylogenetic systematics, is distinguished from other taxonomic systems which rely almost strictly on morphological similarities to characterize related taxa.  These other methods of hypothesizing relationships among organisms are considered fairly subjective. 

You may never come across a white-colored brown bear, but there is a chance that you may confront a bear in your life time.  Keep in mind that not all black bears are black and that all grizzlies are brown bears. And once again, not all brown bears are brown.  If you have any questions contact the National Park Service if you are traveling in the states. 

Unrelated Kodiak Cubs--Shaguyik (blond), Taquka (brown) & handler/trainer Jordan Schaul (Photo by Doug Lindstrand)

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: