Friday, June 15, 2007

Threats natural and unnatural

The most immediate and topically recognized threats to the polar bear are the drastic changes taking place in their natural habitat, which is literally melting away due to global warming. The United States Geological Survey, for example, in November 2006, stated that the loss of sea ice in the Alaskan portion of the Beaufort Sea has lead to a higher death rate for polar bear cubs.

The Harvard University Gazette said:
A 1999 study of polar bears on Hudson Bay showed that rising temperatures are thinning the pack ice from which the bears hunt, driving them to shore weeks before they've caught enough food to get them through hibernation.

The BBC reported:

Climate change is threatening polar bears with starvation by shortening their hunting season, according to a study by scientists from the Canadian Wildlife Service.

There is also some concern over pollution in addition to the normal natural problems the bears might face. Reduced cub survival has been reported in connection with PCBs, as well as reports of organochlorines affecting the endocrine system and immune systems with lower immunoglobulin G seen with increasing PCB levels.

The lipophilic PCBs are considered a serious threat to marine mammals generally and to their food web, quickly concentrating into fat and blubber. These and related compounds are known in mammals (including humans) to cause such things as abortion, still births, alteration of the menstrual cycle, poor growth and survival of young, carcinogenicity, immunotoxicity, and even outright lethality. Other classes of organohalogens have been found in polar bears, such as PCDDs, PCDFs, TCPMe and TCPMeOH. Hermaphroditic polar bears have now been observed in less pristine areas. While some countries now ban some of these substances, they are still produced in others, and still end up all over the entire planet including the formerly pristine arctic. Even after the use of these chemicals is stopped, they continue to accumulate up the food chain, including in marine mammals and humans, for some time to come.

The bears sometimes have problems with various skin diseases with dermatitis caused sometimes by mites or other parasites. The bears are especially susceptible to Trichinella, a parasitic roundworm they contract by eating infected seals. Sometimes excess heavy metals have been observed, as well as ethylene glycol (antifreeze) poisoning. Bears exposed to oil and petroleum products lose the insulative integrity of their coats, forcing metabolic rates to dramatically increase to maintain body heat in their challenging environment. Bacterial Leptospirosis, rabies and morbillivirus have been recorded. Interestingly, the bears are thought by some to be more resistant than other carnivores to viral disease. The pollutant effect on the bears' immune systems, however, may end up decreasing their ability to cope with the naturally present immunological threats it encounters, and in such a challenging habitat even minor weaknesses can lead to serious problems and quick death.

4 comments:

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