Mystery Disease Killing Alaskan Seals

Ringed seal outbreak puzzles biologists

By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff

Posted Oct 14, 2011 3:33 AM CDT

(Newser) – A mysterious disease is killing seals along Alaska's Arctic coast, and officials fear it might spread to other countries—and other species. Scores of dead or severely weakened ringed seals with telltale skin lesions and hair loss have been found along the coastline over the last few months, Reuters reports. Tissue samples from the seals have been sent to labs around the country, but experts have been unable to identify the disease, or determine whether a virus or bacteria is causing it.

Seal-hunting season is about to begin, and "I'm scared they might pass it on one way or another and the whole ocean could be affected," an official in the far north of the state tells the Alaska Dispatch. Walruses have been found with similar lesions, although it's not clear whether they are suffering from the same disease, and biologists have spotted polar bears preying on the weakened seals. Click to see photos of the afflicted creatures.

This image provided by the North Slope Borough shows a ringed seal displaying significant hair loss on the Arctic Ocean coast near Barrow, Alaska.
This image provided by the North Slope Borough shows a ringed seal displaying significant hair loss on the Arctic Ocean coast near Barrow, Alaska.   (AP Photo/North Slope Borough)
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