Reports, Studies Increasing on Diseased Arctic Wildlife

Federal research scientists say they are finding polar bears with skin lesions and oozing sores in the southern Beaufort Sea region near Barrow. The cause and significance of the observed lesions are unknown.

The report from the U.S. Geological Survey in early April comes on the heels of hair loss, skin sores and lethargic behavior in ringed seals, with cause and significance of lesions also unknown, according to marine mammal scientists.

Julie Speegle, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Juneau, said April 9 that the agency is aware that the symptoms are similar, but that it will take more testing to determine if there is a link.

A USGS report issued in Anchorage on April 6 said 9 polar bears were observed with alopecia, or loss of fur, and other skin lesions, but that the animals otherwise appeared to be healthy.

USGS scientists have collected blood and tissue samples from afflicted polar bears to try and determine if 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.

The afflicted polar bears were observed at the start of the USGS annual fieldwork season. The polar bears are observed annually in the southern Beaufort Sea region as part of a long-term USGS research program.

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 Dec. 20.

Based on observations of Pacific walruses with similar skin lesions at a coastal haul-out in the same region during the fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined the unusual mortality event investigation.

Most walruses exhibiting skin lesions appeared also to be otherwise healthy, and whether the symptoms observed in the seals and walruses are related is unknown, NOAA officials said.

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.

NOAA meanwhile has also announced that a team of researchers from the US and Russia have begun the largest survey effort ever to estimate how many ice-associated seals live in the Bering Sea region. The springtime aerial survey, begun this week from Nome, will include survey flights originating from Bethel, Dillingham and St. Paul.

The survey is a joint effort of researchers from the United States and Russia.