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Friday, 1 September, 2000, 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
Scientists test sex-change bears
bear on ice floe
The ice is home to the bears for much of the year
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby in Svalbard in the Arctic

Scientists on Svalbard have found that more than one in a hundred of the islands' polar bears are hermaphroditic.

The condition, in which an animal possesses the reproductive organs of both sexes, affects wildlife in various parts of the world.

It is thought to be caused by exposure to chemicals which affect the endocrine system.

The chemicals blamed for the Svalbard bears' condition are PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which are damaging their immune systems.

The phenomenon was unknown on the Arctic islands, which lie between Norway and the North Pole, a decade ago.

But 1.2% of Svalbard's bears, which total about 3,000, have now been found to be affected.

PCBs were manufactured for use in electrical equipment, and although many countries have now banned them there is a reservoir of the chemicals that has escaped into the environment.

Short food chain

Per Kyrre Reymert, of the Svalbard Science Forum, told BBC News Online: "Tests have been conducted on 40 bears, and these are now being analysed.

bear's pawprint
Pawprint in the snow
"There is a very short and simple food chain here - plankton, fish, seals, and finally the bears themselves. So it is fairly easy to track PCBs and other pollutants."

Seals are the bears' preferred prey. In spring, after emerging from hibernation, they usually eat the whole seal, though later in the year they will often slit the animal open and simply eat the fat.

Although little pollution originates on Svalbard, the prevailing southerly winds dump contamination from industrial Europe on to the islands.

Elizabeth Salter, of WWF, the global environment campaign, told BBC News Online: "It seems to be the female bears on Svalbard that are acquiring male genitalia, a penis-like stump.

"With other species affected by endocrine disrupters, it's more often the males that have genital abnormalities.

"And what's happening to the bears is happening to gulls in the Arctic, too, because of PCBs, DDT and dioxins."

Always armed

From 1950 until 1972 there were organised bear hunts for tourists who visited Svalbard. Since then killing them has been illegal, except in self-defence, and there are now about as many bears as people on the islands.

Since 1973 five people have been killed by bears, and virtually nobody sets foot outside the few settlements on Svalbard without a heavy weapon.

snow-covered peak
Bears roam everywhere on Svalbard
Ny-Alesund, the most northerly settlement in the world, has a population of about 60, most of them scientists.

In winter, it is a rule that nobody locks their doors, in case somebody is surprised by a bear and needs to seek instant refuge.

Alarmingly, even a building is not always enough to deter a hungry bear. In July this year a female with two cubs poked her head through the window of a hut occupied by two Polish scientists in the south of Spitsbergen, the main island.

She would not be scared off, so they shot her. And as the cubs would not move either, they were shot too, as neither could have survived without their mother.

Per Kyrre Reymert fears there will be more encounters. He says: "Climate change is likely to reduce the amount of ice round Svalbard.

"With less ice, there will be more bears coming ashore. And they will be hungry."

Photos courtesy of the Governor of Svalbard

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