Pozzlies, Grizzpos? What to Call the Hybrid Bears?

In spring 2012 two University of Alberta scientists reported an unusual sight. Jodie Pongracz and Evan Richardson thought they were seeing a grizzly and a polar bear ambling along together.

The bears were at 73 degrees North latitude, well north of the usual grizzly habitat. What first appeared to be a polar bear turned out to be a hybrid, something still rare but becoming increasingly common as warming temperatures send grizzly bears farther north.

According to Yale’s environment360:

Up until about 20 years ago, sightings of grizzlies in the High Arctic were relatively rare. But that began to change as a succession of brown bears started showing up on the Arctic islands, following caribou perhaps that routinely cross over from the mainland. No one had seriously thought that these grizzlies would eventually mate with polar bears until Roger Kuptana, an Inuit guide from Sachs Harbour on Banks Island, led an American hunter to one in the spring of 2006. The killing of that animal made headlines around the world.

This is not the first time climate change has led to hybrid bears. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Buffalo traced genome sequences of a polar bear, three brown bears and a black bear. In addition, they were able to study samples from 23 other polar bears, including one that had lived some 120,000 years ago. They found that although polar bears and brown bears became two separate species 4 to 5 million years ago, they had interbred during a time of warming climate half a million years ago.

Next: New Hybrid Spotted by Hunter

The new hybrids were first identified in 2006, when an Idaho hunter, Jim Martell, was on a hunting expedition with an Inuit guide, Roger Kuptana. The white-furred bear he shot had characteristics not seen in polar bears: long claws, a humped shoulder, brown eye patches and an unusual snout. DNA testing proved it to be a hybrid.

Others have spotted hybrids since then. In appearance they fall somewhere between grizzlies and polar bears. Their behavior tends to be more akin to polar bears, relying on a more carnivorous diet than grizzlies.

At the moment the hybrids are rare and not a threat to the continuation of either species. What threatens both is loss of habitat. Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, says:

Polar bears are likely to starve out of their present ranges long before their genes are swamped by those of grizzly bears. If some polar bear genes persist in grizzly bears, after polar bears have disappeared from their current sea ice home, that fact will be irrelevant with regard to efforts to retain the magnificent and highly specialized life form we now know as the polar bear.

Whether we call the hybrids pozzles, grizzpos or Arctic bears, they are a reminder that human tampering with the planet carries threats whose consequences scientists have been predicting for decades. Dr. Armstrup makes this observation:

Discussions of hybridization aside, it is important to remember that by the time we allow the world to warm enough that the polar bears’sea ice habitat disappears, challenges to humans will be so great that no one will be thinking about polar bear conservation.

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More Polar Bears Turn to Cannibalism to Avoid Starvation

Photo credits: Thinkstock

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LMj Sunshine

Interesting article, thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Interesting article, thank you.

Colleen Prinssen
Colleen Prinssen3 years ago

they evolved from brown bears.
also, Scottish wild cat is being hybridized into extinction. I saw they think they have 6 months left untill being classifyed as extinct in the wild.

Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle3 years ago

I like the summing up: It doesn't really matter what they are named, because hybridization aside, it won't matter when the polar bear loses its habitat, because humans will be so busy trying to preserve their own lives, they won't care about a bear.

federico bortoletto

Grazie per l'articolo.

Patricia Geraldes

Thanks for the article.

Elizabeth O.
Elizabeth O.3 years ago

Interesting article.

Valerie A.
Valerie A.3 years ago


Katrina T.

Nature knows what she is doing. Maybe the best way to save polar bears is to let them combine their genes once again with their distant cousin. Then when the time comes - maybe many hundreds of years from now & the earth once again cools the great polar bear will return. There is great danger in man interfering with the 'hybridization' process as we will lose the polar genes altogether if they go extinct, except for the few kept in captivity.

Freya H.
Freya H.3 years ago

How about Priuses? :D