Polar bears in Alaska are losing their fur and US Geological Survey scientists are racing to figure out why.
In the past two weeks, nine of 33 bears checked by scientists in the southern Beaufort Sea region near Barrow were found to have alopecia — loss of fur — and skin lesions, Anchorage-based USGS chief biologist Tony DeGange said, the Associated Press reported.
Three of four bears inspected Thursday near Kaktovik also showed the symptoms, similar to those found in diseased seals and walruses.
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About 60 seals were found dead and another 75 diseased last summer, the Independent cited the USGS as saying. However, there have been no deaths among the polar bears yet.
Unlike the sickened seals and walruses, the affected polar bears seem otherwise healthy, DeGange said.
DeGange said the USGS was coordinating with agencies studying the other animals to investigate whether there was a link.
"There's a lot we don't know yet, whether we're dealing with something that's different or something that's the same," he said.
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"Our data set suggests that this is unusual but not unprecedented," DeGange said. Ten of 48 bears checked by the team in 1998-99 had a similar condition, he said.
Scientists have been collecting blood and tissue samples from the afflicted bears, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
The paper reported that USGS had been sending polar bear research teams to the area since 1984, usually winding up operations in May, when the sea ice becomes too treacherous for safe travel.
This year they saw their first bear with hair loss on March 21.