The Question of the Colour Phase Black Bear

You ever come across a black bear in Manitoba… that wasn’t so black? These largely secretive, poorly named forest dwellers can in fact display the most drastic colour variations of any animal in the province. With colour phase black bears, they can range from pitch black to a near-white blonde and every shade of brown in-between. Knowing that, there is no wonder why confusion can ensue the first time someone lays eyes on a colour phase black bear. So, what causes these colour phases? Truthfully, there is no concrete reasoning that explains exactly why these bears will be one colour or the next, however, there is some reasoning using logic that can help paint a better picture.

Photo courtesy of Owen Lockhart

 

Manitoba Black Bear Facts

These “Black” bears are one of the most abundant and diverse big game animals in Manitoba. They can be found as far south as the USA border all the way north to the coast of the Hudson Bay. Although abundant, these elusive critters often keep a low profile and can be difficult to catch a glimpse of in the wild. Throughout Manitoba, black bears are predominantly black in colour – although some regions, including the north, are home to higher percentages of chocolate, cinnamon, and blonde phase black bears.

Black bears within Manitoba can live in excess of 15 years and have been known to grow well over 600 pounds! Manitoba offers prime habitat for black bears from abundant farmlands to the seclusion of the wild north. Double that with very little hunting pressure and it’s no wonder why Manitoba is one of the best places in the world to find big black bears and big numbers of bears.

manitoba black bear

Black Phase Black Bears:
  • The black phase black bear is most certainly the most well-known colour of black bear in the province.
  • Native almost everywhere in the province, I have found these black phase black bears are most prevalent over the other colour phases in areas of deciduous forests.
  • The higher prevalence of black phase bears in deciduous forests is often thought to be an advantageous natural selection that allows them to camouflage in the shadows of the forest.
  • Some have also noted that black phase black bears may also be more dominant in a colder climate or more shaded habitat. This is because the black coat can help them absorb as much heat from the sun as needed, and conversely, in shaded habitat, the black coat can stay cooler because of the less direct sun.

Manitoba bear hunting

Black Bear “Chest Blaze”:
  • A common feature of black bears is the white patch on their chest known as a “chest blaze” and can be found in approximately 25% of black bears.
  • I have seen these white patches range in size from being a super subtle patch of white hair to the well known “Chevron” style patch resembling the chevron logo, all the way to a white patch that covers much of their chest.
  • As some bears get older, their white patch can become smaller and smaller with each new coat of hair.
  • Some have suggested that the white patch could be related to the recognition of cubs for the sows.

Black bear white patch

Chocolate Phase Black Bears:
  • In the chocolate phase, black bears take on a brown “chocolaty” appearance.
  • This phase is amazing to see in the wild and can take on a few different shades ranging from a dark brown to a lighter brown.
Photo courtesy of Jon Nelson
Blonde Phase Black Bears:
  • Perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring colour phases of black bears, the blonde phase, can be a mix of a very light brown to nearly white in appearance.
  • This phase takes on a supernatural appearance. As these seemingly out of this world looking bears move swiftly through the forest floor, it’s not hard to get lost in their ghost-like motion.
colour phase black bear
Photo courtesy of Jon Nelson
Cinnamon Phase Black Bears:
  • The cinnamon phase black bear takes on the appearance of a mixture between a chocolate phase and a blonde phase black bear. Often having a reddish appearance.
  • Cinnamon phase bears can have different tones of brown on their body sometimes having a darker shade of brown on their head and a lighter brown on their sides.
  • This phase is often confused with a grizzly bear in areas where their habitats overlap as their colours are very similar.
cinnamon black bear
Photo courtesy of Jon Nelson
The Lighter Tones of Black Bears
  • When it comes to the true colour phase classification for each bear on an individual level, it really comes down to personal interpretation. Some blonde phases can have a lot of cinnamon characteristics and some cinnamon phases can have a lot of chocolate characteristics and vice versa. With so many shades between a black and a blonde bear, there is always some grey area to what shade constitutes which classification.
Cinnamon or Chocolate?
The Coloured Bears Ranges 
  • In my experience, the chocolate, blonde and cinnamon phase black bears are uncommon in many of the black bears’ ranges in the southern portions of the province
  • However, over the years I have spent in the bear woods, I have found these less-known phases of black bears, become much more prevalent in areas of the province with abundant coniferous forest stands.
  • I have watched bears for many years in my area of Manitoba’s Interlake Region. In all those years I have only come across a couple of colour phases at my sites. My area is heavy poplar stands mixed in with swamps, willows and oaks. However, just a short distance north from me the forest begins its transition from deciduous to coniferous. In this distance, the prevalence of less conventional black bear colour phases begins to rise.
colour phase black bear
Photo courtesy of Jon Nelson
  • As you head further and further north, towards the 53rd parallel of Manitoba’s Northern Region and beyond. The forest becomes largely coniferous. In these regions, many report the proportion of colour phase black bears to near… and in some cases surpassing 50% of the population.
  • As I mentioned earlier, in my experiences in the southern regions of the province bears’ predominant colour is black. However, there are exceptions in the south in areas like The Riding Mountain National Park, Spruce Woods Provincial Park, throughout the Parkland Region and other similar locations. Again, coincidence or not, these are areas that are home to higher percentages of coniferous trees.
manitoba
Photo courtesy of Jon Nelson
So is there an answer to this question?
  • So, why is it that these colour phase black bears are more prevalent in coniferous areas? As I mentioned, there is actually very little known about why these colour phases are prevalent where they are. However, there are theories.
  • These lighter colour phases could be an adaptation through natural selection, where the lighter tones out-compete the darker tones for their ability to camouflage to the forest floor in a coniferous environment.
  • Some have also noted that the lighter phases of black bears may be more prevalent in a warmer climate or a more open habitat. This is because the lighter coat can help them stay cooler from the heat of the sun.
  • So what do you think? Could the correlation of coniferous forests be the causation of coloured black bears?
colour phase black bear
Photo courtesy of Jon Nelson
For more information on black bears and black bear hunting in Manitoba, check out our Big Game page.
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Written by: Keevin Erickson

 

References:

Rodgers, L. R. (2019, May 18). Black Bear Color Phases. North American Bear Center. https://bear.org/black-bear-color-phases/.

Field & Stream Online Editors April 23. (2007, April 23). A Bear Of Many Colors. Field & Stream. https://www.fieldandstream.com/photos/gallery/kentucky/2007/04/bear-many-colors/.

Miller, M. L. (2017, February 7). When Is a Black Bear Actually a Blue Bear? Cool Green Science. https://blog.nature.org/science/2017/02/07/when-black-bear-actually-blue-bear-color-phases-grizzly-identification/.

Rodgers, L. L. (2019, March). North American Black Bear. Wise About Bears. https://wiseaboutbears.org/black-bears/.

American bear Association . (n.d.). Bears of the World. American Bear Association. https://www.americanbear.org/education-awareness/bears-of-the-world/