Humans – we've done a fair bit to fuck over polar bears, haven't we? We've slung them in enclosures and filmed them, belly-laughing, as they dance the wretched waltz of insanity. We've melted their natural habitat down to the landscape equivalent of honeycomb. We allow people (in Canada) to shoot them dead because it's a bit of a laugh and they get a nice rug out of it.
Despite all that, it could always be assumed that their furry erections would forever remain untroubled by the interminable folly of man.
That is – as you've probably gathered from this set up – until now. New research by Denmark's Aarhus University shows that high levels of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls (carcinogenic compounds used in myriad industrial applications until finally being banned in 2001), are having an adverse effect on the density of polar bears' bacula. The baculum is a bone found within the penis of many species, including bats, hedgehogs, cats, dogs and sea lions.
The study found a high likelihood that endocrine-disrupting chemicals like PCBs are detrimentally affecting bone mineral density and that, terrifyingly, "reductions in penile BMD [bone density] could lead to increased risk of species extinction because of mating and subsequent fertilisation failure as a result of weak penile bones and risk of fractures".
Though the baculum's non-uniformity in mammals means its exact function is unclear, the utter, agonising pain of fracturing it should be easily imaginable to anyone with the ability to wince.
To collect data, Sonne's team took X-rays of 279 polar bear bacula to ascertain their calcium densities alongside known EDC (endocrine disrupting chemical) levels across a number of Arctic regions.
Appreciating that your average polar bear wouldn't exactly appreciate a curious scientist fondling its junk – even a scientist with the very purest of intentions – data collection was sadly much easier than it should have been. The bacula of polar bears are taken as trophies by the hunters who've killed them either for "sport" or subsistence, so testable samples were depressingly simple to locate, and, with them, proof of another clear and more immediate threat to the bears' numbers.
"The study suggests that the baculum may shrink and that it may become more fragile the higher the concentrations of these industrial chemicals," the study's leader, Dr Christian Sonne, told me. These pollutants naturally gravitate to the higher latitudes and cooler air of the Arctic from the more equatorial regions in which they were produced. The effects of their lingering concentration there, coupled with their slow rate of decay, is further exacerbated by the ongoing damage of climate change, such as habitat reduction.
"We rarely see bacula with sign of fractures, but it could easily occur," says Sonne, "especially when the bears also suffer from energetic stress [food shortage] due to the shrinking in sea ice extension."
It's this combination of factors that poses the most pressing threat to the bears. "Bears are drawing down further into their fat stores for energy late in the fasting periods," Dr Andrew Derocher, scientific advisor to Polar Bears International and a University of Edmonton professor of biology, told me. As thinner bears draw down their fat stores due to above-average fasting, "the remaining pollution is released and circulates at higher levels. This means cubs getting milk from their mothers are getting higher doses of pollution and, for those bears that aren't lactating, it means they have to deal with higher pollution levels."
Sonne posits that there could also be another factor at play: "No one knows why bears and other mammals, like seals, have a baculum, but what we know is that it increases in size with latitude," he said.
In 2006, Sonne and his colleagues published a study of East Greenland bears that saw a causal link between these pollutants and smaller than average testes and penises. "Size may matter in polar bears," Sonne says, "as the bears are on a high latitude, the baculum size may have a mating function that's counteracted by PCBs. Therefore, high levels of pollutants may affect reproductive success, as may fractures and deformations of the bacula and, thereby, penis."
It all makes for more depressing reading on polar bears. Last week, the University of Leeds published findings showing how a remote arctic ice cap in Svalbard had thinned by a huge 50 metres since 2012, and in November a study by the Ecological Applications journal showed polar bear numbers in the Beaufort Sea region had plummeted by 40 percent since the year 2000.
"The elephant in the room for polar bears and many other species remains the threat of climate change," Polar Bears International's senior director of conservation, Geoff York, told me. "That primary driver is expected to trigger a host of cascading effects, from habitat alteration and habitat loss, to range shifts and, ultimately, declining population numbers. Toxins like endocrine-disrupting PCBs, along with disease, are two potentially significant wildcards in the climate puzzle. Historically, neither has been a significant threat to polar bears, but that could all change abruptly."
"I don't think the effects of pollution on bone density is a direct threat to the persistence of polar bears as a species at this time – climate change remains the main threat to the species," agrees Derocher. "But there is a high likelihood of synergy between climate change and pollution. Add in potential changes to disease and parasite distribution with warming, like new vectors and hosts – these are concerns going forward."
Sonne succinctly lays out the implications of his study alongside existing conservation concerns: "You starve. Meanwhile, your sexual organs and reproductive health, as well as the immune system, are fucked up."
So, after everything we've already done to the polar bear – disease, habitat loss, parasites, food shortages and straight-up murder – now, as if solely to kick them while they're down, we're giving them dinky, snap-happy bear-knobs and ineffectual little bear bollocks. Polar bears: humans definitely owe you one hell of an apology.
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