black bear

What makes a black bear brown?

Image: A cinnamon-colored black bear in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Neal Herbert

Despite their name, black bears don’t always have black coats. That can make it difficult to tell a brown-colored black bear (Ursus americanus) from a grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis). Researchers recently tapped into the reasons behind why black bears aren’t always black. Looking at bear DNA and hair samples collected from North American bears, researchers found bear color is based on their genes. Black bears that were browner in color had a specific mutation making them so. That same mutation is responsible for causing albinism in humans. The researchers aren’t clear on why the mutation arose in black bears, but they suspect it may have something to do with allowing the bears to blend in with the environment.

Read the study in Current Biology.

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