Mysterious Disease Spreading Among Arctic Seals

ringed seal photo
Photo: ADialla / cc

Beginning last July, officials from Alaska's Department of Wildlife Management began receiving reports of ringed seals showing signs of a mysterious, lesion-causing disease that has so far killed dozens of animals and inflicted possibly hundreds more -- and the illness shows no signs of slowing. Biologists are approaching the situation with particular concern considering the vital role the seals play in an arctic food-chain, one that's already under pressure from melting sea ice -- leading some to worry about the disease's potential impact on the region as a whole.According to a report from the Alaska Dispatch, biologists were first tipped to the presence of an unknown disease spreading among ringed seals last summer. The animals, which typically spend their time at sea or on floating sea ice, have begun wandering ashore in droves along the rocky arctic coastline appearing weak and sickened, some with bleeding skin lesions. So far, 46 seals have perished from the mysterious illness while at least 150 others appear to be infected.

Samples taken from diseased seals have already been sent to laboratories across the country, but so far there's been no word as to what's causing it, how it is transmitted, or if it is isolated to ringed seals. The latter uncertainty has some biologists on edge about what the illness could mean for the overall health of the arctic ecosystem.

"I'm scared they might pass it on one way or another and the whole ocean could be affected," biologist Enoch Shiedt told the Alaska Dispatch.

The sickest ones don't move much on the beaches and they have blisters or wounds that bleed easily, including around the nose, eyes and especially the rear flippers. Others have lost much of their hair.

"They're not deathly skinny. It's not like they're dying from malnutrition. But they're not in great body condition," he said.

Ringed seals have been suggested for inclusion on the Endangered Species list by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Due to the animals' dependence on floating ice sheet, ringed seals are considered particularly vulnerable to arctic melting associated with global warming.

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