Polar bears in Alaska are losing their fur: What’s going on?
In late March, United States Geological Survey (USGS) biologists conducting routine studies on 33 bears in the southern Beaufort Sea region near Barrow found that nine of them had fur loss — alopecia — or skin lesions on their skin, neck and ears (a photo posted on Alaska Public Radio Network shows a bear with the lesions). As Kieran Mulvaney writes on Discovery News, bears with such fur loss are not uncommon; what is unusual is to find so many bears with such. The bears appeared to be otherwise healthy.
USGS chief biologist Tony DeGange says that bears with such symptoms have been found since 1999. Scientists will be collecting blood and tissues from polar bears near the Canadian border and also in the Prudhoe Bay region in mid-May to try to figure out what is causing the symptoms.
One possible culprit is a “mysterious illness” affecting seals and walruses that left 60 seals dead and another 75 diseased last summer in an Unusual Mortality Event. Seals with the disease have sores, labored breathing and lethargy while walruses, though their skin and fur are affected, seem healthy. Notably, ringed seals, polar bears’ primary prey, are the most affected, though other types of seals (ribbon, bearded and spotted) also have the disease.
Alaska Public Radio Network says that polar bears are not being considered part of the Unusual Mortality Event. The bears are a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act; even if they were not, DeGange says that the USGS “would put a high priority on understanding what’s causing the symptoms” as they are an “iconic species in the arctic” and a “subsistence resource to the natives on the north slope.”
Let’s hope scientists can figure out what is causing polar bears to lose their fur soon and certainly before any bears succumb to the “mysterious illness” as the seals have.
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Photo by John Harwood