Rate of hair loss, lesions in Alaskan polar bears skyrocketed almost 1,000% after Fukushima
by: David Gutierrez
Polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea region of Alaska have suffered a surge in hair loss, according to a survey conducted by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and an Alaskan veterinary pathologist, and published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases.
While the scientists note that the cause of the hair loss remains unknown, circumstantial evidence suggests that radiation released by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster might be at least partially to blame.
The hair loss is a serious problem, as it hampers the bears' ability to resist the cold.
"They might be more energetically stressed, and then they encounter some other stressors," USGS researcher Todd Atwood said.
Coincides with seal disease, radiation release
From 1998 to 2012, the researchers captured and examined live polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea region of Alaska. Overall, the rate of alopecia syndrome -- characterized by patchy loss of hair around the head, neck and shoulders -- was 3.45 percent. When bears with the syndrome were captured again in later years, they had typically recovered fully.
In 2012, however, a shocking 28 percent of the bears examined were suffering from alopecia syndrome. This time period roughly corresponds a similar affliction -- patchy fur loss and skin lesions -- plaguing hundreds of Alaskan seals, causing many deaths, and also disease in a smaller number of walruses.
In their search for explanations for the alopecia, the scientists took skin biopsies from hairless areas on the polar bears, but they found no evidence of fungal or bacterial infections. Because the researchers did not test the bears for radiation exposure, there is no way to know if the uptick in alopecia syndrome was caused in any way by the March 2011 nuclear meltdowns at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It is well established that a nuclear plume released from that disaster scattered radioactive fallout across the northern Bering and Chukchi seas within five days. In the following months, radiation could have continued to spread across the region by a variety of environmental vectors. It should also be noted that radioactive waste has been pouring into the Pacific Ocean ever since the Fukushima disaster five years ago.
Indeed, a paper presented to the January 2014 Alaska Marine Science Symposium explored the possibility that Fukushima fallout could be behind another outbreak of seal disease -- also involving hair loss and skin lesions -- that hit various Arctic seal populations just months after Fukushima. The paper suggested that fallout had contaminated the sea ice and entered the food chain that summer once the ice began to melt.
Environmental factors also at play
The researchers found that subadult bears were the most affected and that males were more likely to be affected than females. Mother bears and cubs seemed immune to the condition, suggesting that the proximate cause of the alopecia could have been something that wa in the environment between November and March, when mother bears with cubs remain confined to their dens.
Nearly all reports of alopecia in polar bears have come from the Beaufort Sea population, further suggesting an environmental component. The researchers noted that, due to the shape of its continental shelf, the Beaufort Sea has limited hunting grounds for polar bears; the populations there have been harder hit by vanishing sea ice than bears in regions with more shallow waters for hunting. This could mean that the Beaufort Sea bears are in worse physical shape and more vulnerable to whatever causes alopecia. This hypothesis is supported by the observation that polar bears with alopecia were usually in worse physical shape than bears without it.
It could also be, however, that alopecia makes bears more sensitive to the cold and, therefore, they develop poor health.
"That's a question that we can't answer at this point because we don't know what's causing it," Atwood said.
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