Along the central coast of British Columbia, grizzly bears go by many names. In the Sgüüx̣s language spoken by the Kitasoo Nation and the Sm’algyax language of the Gitga’at Nation, they are known as medi’ik. And in the Haíɫzaqvḷa, It7Nuxalkmc, ‘Wuik̓ala and Xai’xais languages, bears are called Nope. The reasons for these language differences, new research suggests, may be similar to the reasons grizzly groups differ genetically in the region.
A new study has found remarkable geographic alignment between distinct genetic groups of grizzly bears and three native language families – Tsimshian, Northern Wakashan, and Salishan Nuxalk – in the coastal territories, suggesting the rich landscape similarly shaped bears and humans.
“Bears are great teachers,” says Lauren Henson, lead author of the study and researcher at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. “People used the same watersheds and the same access to salmon for millennia. So maybe it would be more surprising that there is was not overlap between bear culture and human culture.
Regions with a high degree of biological and cultural diversity, such as the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Indomalaysia / Melanesia, are considered to be biocultural hotspots. However, these are often determined by measuring species richness and linguistic diversity, Henson explains. Examining the finer scale of genetic groups within a species, she says, is an emerging aspect of biocultural research.
To assess how bears can be linked across the landscape, Henson and colleagues at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Hakai Institute * and other organizations, in collaboration with Nuxalk, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo / Xai’xais, Gitga’at and Wuikinuxv Nations, analyzed bear hair samples taken from an area of 23,500 square kilometers of the central coast of British Columbia. This research revealed three distinct genetic groups of grizzly bears and that each group appeared to overlap with the linguistic family of that given region.
Genetic groupings within species can often be explained by natural or man-made barriers in the landscape (high mountains, wide waterways, roads) that prevent movement and gene flow between populations. In the grizzly bear populations of the interior, between central British Columbia and Wyoming, for example, scientists have identified many genetic fractures and a few genetically isolated populations, due to the millions of people living in the area, says Bruce McLellan, a recently retired wildlife ecologist with the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources who was not involved in the research.
However, Henson and his team found that these factors could not explain the genetic differences seen in coastal grizzly bears in British Columbia. “Bears are all-terrain vehicles,” she says. “They can swim. They can climb mountains. They are quite adaptable. Also, the central coast is not very developed, there are not many roads and there are not many people.
Henson thinks it’s possible that the variations in food and resources found along the coast rather facilitated these various genetic groups. “It may be less about what doesn’t allow them to move and more about what allows them to stay,” she says. And because bears and humans have shared food and space for millennia, it follows that humans could respond to the environment in similar ways, allowing a rich diversity of languages to evolve in parallel.
“It really surprised me how much these language groups and the areas of these distinct bear populations came together,” says William Housty of the Integrated Resource Management Department at Heiltsuk and co-author of the ‘study. “I never thought of it in this context – that bears are geographically separated from each other the same way we are from our neighbors.”
Clayton Lamb, a wildlife scientist at the University of British Columbia and the University of Montana who is not affiliated with the study, notes that the research makes a significant contribution to scientists’ understanding of the genetic fragmentation, “in that distinct genetic groups can be identified in relatively untouched landscapes.”
Such findings also have implications for grizzly bear management in British Columbia. While genetic variations do not always dictate a subspecies or alter an animal’s physical appearance, they can identify closely related groups of bears and signal their adaptive capacity to respond to changes in the animal’s body. environment. Ideally, wildlife managers maintain population health by protecting a wide swath of genetic diversity to promote resilience. But the B.C. government is dividing grizzly bears into population units that don’t follow unique bear genetics, breaking up otherwise continuous groups and managing them differently. Although Lamb notes that there are many factors to consider when defining population units – regime similarities, contemporary movements between populations, and population size – “historical genetic signatures, such as those studied here, indicate the best way to delimit these limits “.
“It’s really important to see these bears at ground level,” Housty adds. “Management at a high level may not protect and maintain genetic diversity. “
* The Hakai Institute and Hakai Magazine both are part of the Tula Foundation. The review is editorially independent of the institute and the foundation.