Nine polar bears spotted in the Beaufort Sea were found with fur loss and open sores. There is concern among wildlife experts that these symptoms may be related to similar incidents among seals and walruses.
Tests confirmed that the polar bears were suffering from alopecia, a partial or complete loss of hair in areas where hair should be present, and other skin lesions. Aside from the alopecia and skin lesions, the polar bears appeared to be healthy. Although patches of hair loss have been seen among polar bears since 1999, this recent episode has caused concern among wildlife experts because of the high prevalence seen among the recently spotted polar bears and because of the similarity of symptoms seen in sick seals and walruses found in the arctic last year. As of yet, scientists have been unable to determine whether the recently spotted polar bears are suffering from the same illness as the seals and walruses. However, the veterinary pathologist who has studied the animals noted that the lesions look very similar under a microscope.
Although there have been no reported sightings of dead polar bears from this incident, around 60 seals and several walruses were found dead. Due to the high number of deaths among seals and walruses as a result of this undetermined illness, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared it an “unusual mortality event” (UME) on December 20, 2011. A UME declaration is a special condition under which the federal government can use additional resources in which to investigate. As of right now, the polar bear incident will not be included as part of the (UME) until there is further evidence linking the two incidents.
Tests to determine the cause of the illness has ruled out various bacteria and viruses known to affect marine mammals. In addition, tests have also ruled out two different toxins, known to cause harmful algae blooms, as being the cause of the illness. Although there has been speculation that the symptoms may be related to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, scientists believe this to be unlikely due to the low levels of radiation detected in waters around Alaska where the sick seals and walruses were found.
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