Concern mounts for Canadian polar bears as avian flu strikes Alaska

Written by  jasleen Kaur   |  January 05th 2024 05:03 PM  |  Updated: January 05th 2024 05:03 PM

Concern mounts for Canadian polar bears as avian flu strikes Alaska

PTC Web Desk: Canadian polar bears face potential threats from the spread of avian flu following confirmation of the virus claiming the life of a bear in Alaska. Andrew Derocher, a prominent polar bear biologist at the University of Alberta, expressed concerns, citing a high probability of the virus impacting Canadian bear populations.

The deceased bear, found near the Alaskan town of Utqiagvik, was confirmed to have succumbed to the H5N1 strain of avian flu by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bear belonged to a population that traverses both the US and Canada, raising worries about the virus's spread across the border.

Reports indicate that avian flu initially surfaced in Yukon over a year ago in a red fox, alerting territorial veterinarian Jane Harms. Harms emphasised the virus's adaptability to infect various mammal species, including polar bears, marking a significant cause for concern.


While the exact reach of the virus among Arctic mammals remains uncertain, Alaska's wildlife authorities have identified infected red foxes, a black bear, and a Kodiak bear. Harms suggested transmission primarily occurs when mammals consume infected birds and does not appear to spread from mammal to mammal.

Experts such as Derocher and John Whiteman from Polar Bears International and Old Dominion University highlighted the vulnerability of polar bears to pathogens due to a diminished genetic ability to recognise and resist them. They urged enhanced monitoring of wildlife diseases, emphasising the need for more extensive testing to confirm avian flu infections.

The death of a bear, part of the Southern Beaufort population estimated at about 900, rings alarm bells for the potential impact on polar bear populations already declining due to sea ice loss. While scientists acknowledge the seriousness of the threat, they caution against overreaction, attributing the primary threat to the species to sea ice loss caused by climate change.


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