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See Inside Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 2

Sickness Spreads across the Arctic

As the far north heats up, its inhabitants—from musk oxen to residents of growing cities—are getting ill

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The sea otters splashing off alaska's aleutian islands should have thrived in their home far from civilization. Instead the furry little creatures were in trouble. Their population throughout the Aleutians and southwestern Alaska had crashed by 70 percent in less than 10 years.

Trying to decipher the decline, Tracey Goldstein of the University of California, Davis, and her fellow researchers went looking for disease. What they found chilled them: evidence of a distemper virus usually found in seals. The virus had already killed more than 50,000 seals along Europe's shores over two decades. It had also been linked to seal deaths on the eastern coasts of Canada and the U.S. Yet seal distemper virus had never been found in the North Pacific. How did it get there?

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