Those who traipse around the woods may be familiar with an old saying about what to do if they encounter a bear: “If it’s black, fight back; if it’s brown, lie down; if it’s white, say good night.” Nowhere, however, does the word "cinnamon" appear. But as researchers make clear in a new study in Current Biology, bears with a "cinnamon morph" genetic variant most definitely exist, reports IFLScience. No, they're not a hybrid of a black bear and a grizzly. Cinnamon bears are black bears that just happen to look kind of brown.
"Geography definitely plays a part," lead researcher Emily Puckett of the University of Memphis in Tennessee tells Live Science. "Our demographic modeling identified that the most likely place where the mutation arose was somewhere in the western region, very likely in the Southwest. From there, it expanded through gene flow throughout populations." In fact, the variant has been around for more than 9,000 years. As Puckett notes, such bears are more common in the Southwest, though they are spreading, albeit slowly, across the US. People on the East Coast are still most likely to see black bears that are well, black. But things get iffier the further west you go.
The researchers' best guess on why the variant is most prominent in the Southwest has to do with what they call "crypsis," per the New York Times. That is, black bears that are brown have a better chance of blending into the environment of that region. An important advantage: It would help them avoid becoming killed by larger predators as cubs. An ecologist at the University of Oklahoma predicts more people across the US will come across a cinnamon bear as their range expands. For example, people in Oklahoma have reported seeing grizzlies, even though grizzlies don't live there. “We have to keep reminding people that black bears can be brown,” Sue Fairbanks tells the Times. (Read more bears stories.)