Balding bears? More polar bears with hair loss found

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A polar bear, captured in spring 2012 by USGS researchers, has hair loss and oozing sores on the left side of its neck. Photo: USGSPolar bear researchers in Alaska continue to find bears with missing hair and skin lesions. So far, more than a quarter of the bears they’ve captured have shown signs of the condition – a much higher number than is typically seen.

As of Wednesday, 13 of 48 bears – or a little more than 27% – had documented cases of alopecia or other skin conditions.

It’s not unusual to run across a few bears with hair loss, but to see the condition in higher numbers is odd.

Because biologists are already on the hunt for what is making other arctic species sick with similar symptoms, the high rate of hair loss in polar bears has piqued curiosity in the science and wildlife communities.

“It’s too early to mark this as a real cause for concern,” said Bruce Woods, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Samples of the affected areas are being collected and sent to an out-of-state lab for analysis, said Tony DeGange, a biologist with U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage. They are also hoping to get Anchorage veterinary pathologist Kathy Burek-Huntington up to Alaska’s North Slope to witness the symptoms first-hand.

Burke-Huntington is already on the team of disease hunters trying to figure what’s making Alaska seals and walrus sick with similar symptoms. Adding the mystery illness that’s causing hair loss in polar bears to her investigation should help scientists determine whether all three animals – seals, walrus, polar bear – are suffering from the same illness or different afflictions. Currently, no one knows.

For now, researchers remain in Katkovik, with plans to move on to Prudhoe Bay once the weather improves.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com

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