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DATE: June 14, 2019

SNIP: Scientists are investigating the cause of death of at least 60 seals after the mammals washed up along the coast of Alaska, an animal welfare agency said on Wednesday.

The bearded, spotted and ringed seals were found dead on Monday at sites including the southern edge of the Bering Strait region and the Chukchi coastline above the Arctic Circel, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Fisheries department said.

The cause of the seals’ death is not known.

A number of the seals also washed up hairless, which has concerned researchers that the moulting could be due to a crisis in the population.

The ringed and bearded seals are currently on Alaska’s Endangered Species Act, listed as threatened. Along with the spotted seals, the three species are part of Alaska’s ice seal species, which rely on the sea ice as for food foraging, resting, and for raising their young.

But the ice in the Chukchi and Bering seas has been in shorter supply than usual, while the sea-surface temperatures have been far higher than average. Sea surface temperatures along the coastlines of the two seas were recorded as high as 4.5 degrees Celsius above average last month and have not yet returned to normal.

Ringed seals are the smallest and most numerous of Alaska’s ice seals and the main prey of another threatened species, polar bears.

Ringed seals thrive in completely ice-covered Arctic waters because they maintain breathing holes with thick claws.

After snow covers breathing holes, females excavate snow caves on sea ice. Inside those lairs, they give birth to pups that cannot survive in ice-cold water until weeks later when they have grown a blubber layer. Early breakup of sea ice, less snow and even rain threatens lairs, exposing pups to polar bears, Arctic foxes and freezing temperatures.

Bearded seals get their name from short snouts covered with thick, long, white whiskers. Bearded seals give birth and rear pups on drifting pack ice.