Balding Bears in the Arctic
Recent studies published by scientists from the USGS Western Ecological Research Station examine concerning developments in polar bear health likely as a result of -you guessed it- climate change based on gene transcription patterns.
Polar bears have experienced significant environmental shifts, beginning with a 12% annual reduction in Arctic Sea ice, reducing access to seals, their traditional prey. Beginning in 2012, scientists from the USGS and U.S. Fish & Wildlife service began noticing incidents of alopecia in polar bears with 28% of the population affected. The researchers compared the genes of healthy bears to affected bears. The latter had increased gene transcription associated with intracellular pathogens and immune function.
This repressed immune function may be a result of a shift to species of open-water seal, animals more exposed to pollution. Apex predators like polar bears and tuna are especially subject to bioaccumulation of toxins as they absorb and have trouble excreting the culmination of the pollutants in their prey.
The studies, published in Polar Biology and Science of the Total Environment aim to establish a monitoring system for identifying populations with compromised health prior to actual outbreaks of illness in an effort to preserve the Arctic ecosystem as much as possible.
Image by USGS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons