The animal is about the same size as a polar bear and looks nearly identical. The hair is slightly darker, almost brown in places and the head wider. A distinctive hump to the back and sickle-like claws are there too, which is not normal. The bear lies in the snow, dead, splayed out on its stomach. Its hunter, Jim Martell, feels elation. The gun is still warm in his hand. Over the last couple of years Martell has worked carefully with the Canadian government to get permission to shoot a polar bear and paid nearly $50,000 in permits, fees, and guides, but finally got his prize. The money he paid will help fund future research; the bear is a small sacrifice for a greater good. And an impressive trophy. Martell must be beaming.
The guide, Roger Kuptana, is not so high-spirited. He’s been out here on the ice long enough to know that Martell’s polar conquest is not what it seems to be. Later, he will give a call to the government, order some testing. It will confirm what he suspected. This is a hybrid animal. The offspring of a grizzly and a polar bear, an animal known to be possible, but never confirmed in the wild.
This all happened in the spring of 2006. It would repeated itself on Victoria Island four years later.
As climate changes and human interactions shift the ranges of wild populations previously uncommon meetings are starting to crop up more and more often. The rise of the coywolf (a coyote-wolf hybrid) in the northeast United States may be due to the scarcer wolves breeding with the more common coyote. The hybrid, smaller and less cautious around humans, nevertheless operates in a niche the wolf used to fill, hunting in packs to take down larger animals.
The bears, called alternatively pizzlies, nanulak, grolar bears, or aknuk (depending on the language used and the parentage of the hybrid), may be due to a greater mixing of the polar-grizzly ranges. Grizzlies may be headed northwards due to encroaching human settlement to the south and rising global temperatures while polar bears may be sticking closer to land in response to the melting ice caps. The two species are able to breed with one another, now the temporal and spatial barriers may be falling.
The nanulak is still quite rare, however, as populations shift more and more, it would not be surprising to see more uncommon hybrids on the march.