A recent essay in the print edition of New Scientist magazine called "Hard times for polar bears as pollution linked to penis bone" caught my eye (the online version is titled "Polar bear penis bone may be weakened by pollution") because it showed once again the insidious and wide-ranging deleterious effects we are having on these magnificent animals as well as many others. It turns out that "high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were associated with bears having a less dense baculum (penis bone), which may prevent successful mating."
A research team lead by Dr. Christian Sonne, who works at Aarhus University in Denmark, reported their findings in a paper called "Penile density and globally used chemicals in Canadian and Greenland polar bears" in the journal Environmental Research. They conclude in the abstract to this essay, "While reductions in BMD (bone mineral density) is in general unhealthy, reductions in penile BMD could lead to increased risk of species extinction because of mating and subsequent fertilization failure as a result of weak penile bones and risk of fractures. Based on this, future studies should assess how polar bear subpopulations respond upon EDC exposure since information and understanding about their circumpolar reproductive health is vital for future conservation."
Hard and unhard times for polar bears
Based on these findings, the title of the print version of the New Scientist essay could well have been "Unhard times for polar bears." On a more serious note, this landmark study shows just how much we affect the lives of other animals in unimaginable ways, making for hard times and threatening their very survival. Polar bears and many other species are getting screwed, or not, and what's even more egregious is that PCBs are very slow to break down, they disperse and accumulate over time. As the authors of this paper note, many pollutants "are known to be endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and are also known to be long-range dispersed and to biomagnify to very high concentrations in the tissues of Arctic apex predators such as polar bears (Ursus maritimus). A major concern relating to EDCs is their effects on vital organ–tissues such as bone and it is possible that EDCs represent a more serious challenge to the species' survival than the more conventionally proposed prey reductions linked to climate change."
I hope that this study is taken more seriously than others that clearly show just how harmful environmental pollutants can be, and more than lip service is given to banning their use and trying to reduce their presence. Polar bears are the poster animals for just how destructive we can be, and their loss is a very sad occurrence as we trounce ecosystem upon ecosystem and their magnificent residents.