Polar Bear Health and Disease Diagnostics

Science Center Objects

In 2012, scientists noticed that nearly a third of polar bears sampled in a study in Alaska were suffering from hair loss and poor health. Drs. Lizabeth Bowen and A. Keith Miles of WERC used new technology to track down and identify the factors responsible for driving disease in Alaskan polar bears.

In 2012, nearly a third of polar bears sampled in a study in the southern Beaufort Sea region of Alaska had varying degrees of alopecia, or hair loss, and reduced body condition. Concurrently, scientists found elevated numbers of sick or dead ringed seals in the southern Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering seas, resulting in the declaration of an unusual mortality event by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The causes of these events are unknown, and researchers have been unable to detect related physiological changes within individual animals using classical diagnostic methods.

Drs. Bowen and Miles used new technology to investigate the circumstances responsible for the susceptibility of certain polar bears to hair loss and reduced health. Using transcriptomic analysis, Drs. Bowen and Miles identified enhanced immune response, viral defense, and response to stress in polar bears with alopecia. The results provide an example of an alternative technique for searching for and identifying the factors driving disease that would be less costly, more focused, and more efficient than classical methods. This emerging technology will help resource managers design systems of surveillance and investigation that provide early warning of health concerns in wildlife species important to humans.