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Reference Desk April 2012

Polar Bears in Alaska Observed with Patchy Hair Loss and other Skin Lesions

    ANCHORAGE, Alaska, April 6, 2012—In the past two weeks, 9 polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea region near Barrow were observed with alopecia, or loss of fur, and other skin lesions. The animals were otherwise healthy in appearance and behavior. The cause and significance of the observed lesions are unknown. Alopecia has been reported in both wild and captive animals in the past. U.S. Geological Survey scientists have collected blood and tissues samples from afflicted polar 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.   

    Research scientists with the USGS made the observations at the start of their 2012 field-work season. USGS observes polar bears annually in the southern Beaufort Sea region as part of a long-term research program. This bear population ranges from Barrow in Alaska east to the Tuktoyuktuk region of Canada.

    Observations last summer of unusual numbers of ringed seals hauled out on beaches along the Arctic coast of Alaska, and later on, of dead and dying seals with hair loss and skin sores, led to declaration of an Unusual Mortality Event by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on December 20, 2011. Based on observations of Pacific walruses with similar skin lesions at a coastal haulout in the same region during fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined the UME investigation. Most walruses exhibiting skin lesions appeared to be otherwise healthy, and whether the symptoms observed in the seals and walruses are related is unknown.

    polar bear with alopecia

    In the polar bears that USGS has observed to date, the most common areas affected include the muzzle and face, eyes, ears and neck. The bear in the photo has hair loss and oozing sores on the left side of its neck.

    Since the initial reports from northern Alaska, ice seals with similar symptoms have also been reported in adjacent regions of Canada and Russia and from the Bering Strait region. Despite extensive testing for a wide variety of well known infectious agents, the cause(s) of the observed condition in walruses and ice seals remains unknown. Advanced testing techniques for unidentified infectious agents is continuing as well as further testing for potential causes including man-made and natural biotoxins, radiation, contaminants, auto-immune diseases, nutritional, hormonal, and environmental factors.

    Upon last week's discovery, USGS immediately informed the wildlife veterinarian and biologists in the North Slope Borough who are responsible for onsite coordination of the Northern Pinniped UME, the USFWS, Alaska Nanuuq Commission and NOAA. The USGS is coordinating closely with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, and with the Northern Pinniped UME in developing sampling protocols that will provide information about the cause of alopecia in polar bears, and any possible relationship with the disease observed in seals.   

    USGS scientists have been operating in the vicinity of Barrow and recently moved eastward to Kaktovik, to continue their studies. They will complete their field-work in early May working from Prudhoe Bay.  

    Anyone observing or harvesting a polar bear with fur loss or skin sores is encouraged to report their sightings by calling the USGS polar bear hotline at 907-786-7034 or the local numbers established for reporting sightings of affected seals and walruses.  These numbers include: 

    Barrow/North Slope: North Slope Borough Dept. of Wildlife Management • 907-852-0350
    Nome/Bering Strait: Eskimo Walrus Commission • 1-877 277-4392
    UAF Marine Advisory Program • 1-800-478-2202 or 907-443-2397 
    NOAA Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network • 1-877-925-7773
    Alaska Nanuuq Commission • 1-907-443-5044 

    Both USGS and USFWS are working with the State of Alaska Division of Public Health in their efforts to assess potential risk with respect to food safety and distribute general precautionary guidelines. Hunters are advised to refrain from consumption of any animal that does not look healthy and to thoroughly cook polar bear meat which is the traditional subsistence practice.  At present, there is no evidence that consuming animals involved in this disease event has caused any human illness.

    Source: U.S. Geological Survey

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