10/28/2011 12:24 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2011

Pacific Walruses Suffer From Unknown Disease Similar to Alaska Ringed Seals

Arctic ringed seals aren't the only marine mammal suffering an unusual skin-lesion outbreak along Alaska's northern coasts.

Walruses that have hauled out by the thousands at Point Lay in Northwest Alaska during recent summers -- an event driven by climate change -- are also turning up with bizarre, festering sores. Scientists estimate perhaps 600 are infected. Instead of wounds on their faces and rear flippers, red abscesses pepper the animals' entire bodies. But apparently only a few have perished.

Still, scientists from a number of agencies are working to answer several questions, including whether the outbreaks in the two species are related. They also worry the lesions could eventually lead to deaths among Pacific walrus, an animal more than 100,000 strong that's being considered for protections under the Endangered Species Act.

"Is it the bubonic plague or just a really bad case of acne?" asked Tony Fischbach, a federal walrus biologist who first noticed the sores on some walruses late this summer.

As in the case of the ringed seals, biologists are working with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, pathology experts and others. They've sent skin and tissue samples to labs in the U.S. and Canada, but haven't pinpointed a cause. Everything from viruses to toxins are being considered.

It doesn't appear that a huge numbers of walruses have the lesions. At various times, an estimated 20,000 walruses have gathered on the beach.

Leo Ferreira III, the former mayor in Point Lay, a village of 200 residents west of Barrow, said the sores seem to have contributed to the deaths of some walruses.

"Most of them that are dying got the lesions on them," said Ferreira, an Inupiat walrus hunter. He provided a little help last month as scientists collected flesh samples from the animals for testing. He's seen two dead ones with lesions.


"This is the first time this is happening," he said. "But this is also happening with the ringed seals. We're very concerned. It's because we think there is a disease spreading through them."

Sprawling walrus herds began hauling out on the beach near the village in 2007, for the first time in memory, as temperatures warmed. Walrus experts say it's because climate change has melted the sea ice the animals normally use as a diving platform for bottom foraging.

Fischbach said biologists this summer witnessed new behavior among the walruses at Point Lay. Previously, they did their diving for clams and mud-dwelling worms near the beach. But that's not a rich feeding ground. ...

Read the complete story only at Alaska Dispatch.