A polar bear in Alaska has reportedly become the first of its kind to die from H5N1 avian influenza.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed the death of the polar bear, a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, in December, and Dr. Bob Gerlach, Alaska's state veterinarian, told the Alaska Beacon, "This is the first polar bear case reported, for anywhere.”
Gerlach explains that although bears typically eat seals and fish, it is possible that the virus was contracted by consuming an already infected dead bird.
“If a bird dies of this, especially if it’s kept in a cold environment, the virus can be maintained for a while in the environment,” he told the Beacon.
Bird flu has been causing bird deaths for decades, with strains of the virus identified since 1996 and notable outbreaks in 2004 and 2005. However, the present outbreak marks the most severe case of avian flu in U.S. history.
It started in Feb. 2022 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture found the strain on a Midwest poultry farm. Since then, the USDA reports that over 70 million birds in the U.S. have been impacted, with 11.4 million being affected last month alone. The virus has also spread to birds in over 80 countries.
While mostly affecting birds, the virus has also spread to mammalslike foxes, skunks, mountain lions, other types of bears, and sea lions.
The increasing impact on mammals worries Gerlach, who, considering the polar bear's threatened status, states, "We don’t know the overall extent of what the virus may do in the polar bear species."
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