Alopecia (hair loss) has been observed in several marine mammal species and has potential energetic consequences for sustaining a normal core body temperature, especially for Arctic marine mammals routinely exposed to harsh environmental conditions. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) rely on a thick layer of adipose tissue and a dense pelage to ameliorate convective heat loss while moving between sea ice and open water. From 1998 to 2012, we observed an alopecia syndrome in polar bears from the southern Beaufort Sea of Alaska that presented as bilaterally asymmetrical loss of guard hairs and thinning of the undercoat around the head, neck, and shoulders, which, in severe cases, was accompanied by exudation and crusted skin lesions. Alopecia was observed in 49 (3.45%) of the bears sampled during 1,421 captures, and the apparent prevalence varied by years with peaks occurring in 1999 (16%) and 2012 (28%). The probability that a bear had alopecia was greatest for subadults and for bears captured in the Prudhoe Bay region, and alopecic individuals had a lower body condition score than unaffected individuals. The cause of the syndrome remains unknown and future work should focus on identifying the causative agent and potential effects on population vital rates.
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Vol. 51 • No. 1