Alaska polar bears, protected under the Endangered Species Act, have joined the list of far-north species afflicted with some mystery illness.
An iconic animal that has become a symbol for global awareness of a melting arctic, polar bears are beginning to show up with hair loss and lesions.
Polar bear researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey are only halfway into their annual survey in Alaska and they’ve already come across nine bears – six in Barrow and 3 in Kaktovik – with signs of alopecia and skin lesions. The muzzle, face, eyes, ears and neck appear most affected, according to a bulletin published Friday by the agency.
“We are seeing it in bears across the Southern Beaufort Sea in Alaska,” said Tony DeGange, a biologist with the USGS in Anchorage.
Researchers say they aren’t alarmed because the bears seem healthy otherwise. But their curiosity is piqued. They want to know what the condition means, if anything, to the animals’ long-term health and whether there’s any connection to the illnesses recently discovered in other animals that share the same waters.
Large numbers of sick and dying seals were found along Alaska’s Arctic coast last summer, followed by a similar but less-severe condition found in Pacific Walrus in the same region during the fall.
The combination led to a declaration by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in December of an Unusual Mortality Event. That brought together agencies and researchers seeking answers about what was happening and why.
Both animals suffered skin lesions. The seals also had hair loss. It’s not known what is causing the afflictions or whether all the species suffer from the same disease.
Hair loss is not uncommon in polar bears – it happens both to bears in the wild and in captivity. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums lists allergies, mites, self-inflicted wounds from rubbing in stressed bears, water quality issues and hormone imbalances as leading suspects for the cause of the problem.
Federal scientists have collected blood and tissue samples from the afflicted bears “to investigate the cause of the symptoms and determine whether there is any relationship between the symptoms observed in polar bears and those reported for arctic pinnipeds from the same geographical region earlier this year,” according to a prepared announcement about the findings.
Polar bear observations will wrap up near Prudhoe Bay in early May.
By Lubio Lenin Cardozo