Climate change or sexual dysfunction: the downfall of the little polar bear

As a graduate student at Tufts University, I took a course on climate change policy and regulation. In the course, the professor asked us what would be an effective way of getting the public’s attention on climate change. Being the ever pragmatist, I declared “money” — you hit people in their pockets and they will pay attention. I suggested highlighting how much climate change would cost insurance agencies, home owners and even alter food prices at the supermarket.

My fellow classmates were not so inclined though. Who cares about money, you horrible capitalist? People will care about…..polar bears!

And it is true, when you think of an animal affected by climate change you don’t think about turtles or birds, you think about polar bears. Majestic, ruthless, doomed – how could you ignore these cuddly carnivores?

And there is ample evidence that climate change will negatively impact these seal-ravaging beasts (a, b).

But, this process could take a while, and humans are impatient. Isn’t there a way we could off these charismatic mega-fauna sooner? Never to disappoint, always resourceful people have found a way.

What could be worse than eliminating an animal’s habitat and reducing its food availability? Well you could destroy its sex life, and that is exactly what people are doing to the poor *little* polar bear.

It turns out that chemicals that humans are releasing into the environment are shriveling the polar bears wiener. I’m not kidding about this.

These chemicals are called organohalogens, and they include PCBs, DDTs, HCBs and more. They have been used in pesticides and industrial products for years and are bad for animals because they are endocrine disruptors, which means they can disrupt the reproductive system – awesome!

So I bet you are wondering what all those polar bears are doing hanging around in agricultural fields and industrial plants, getting exposed to endocrine disrupters. And how many agricultural fields and industrial plants are there in the arctic anyway?

Well, organohalogens are big travelers in the environment, so chemicals released in the US or Europe can travel quickly all around the globe and end up in polar bear food – aka seals (c).

Now this is the part that gets a little crazy. Researchers actually measured polar bear penises (d). I believe the penises were no longer attached to the polar bears, but still, serious? That’s a job?

What they found was that the more organohalogens there were in the polar bear, the shorter the testis and baculum length, and the lower the baculum bone density (baculum’s are the bone in the polar bear penis. Yes, they have a bone in their penis. Grow up).

Not to be outdone, the lady polar bears also experienced reduced genitalia size in response to organohalogens as well. So, both the males and the females were pretty much screwed by these contaminates (no pun intended…ok, pun intended!).

So, perhaps my old classmates were on the right track when wanting to talk about polar bears instead of money. There is really nothing more attention getting than sex, and the poor polar bear is going to get it in the sex department long before its habitat is diminished. Educating the public about it should be easy, because people will always read an article on sex organs over environmental issues. We’re people, and we have potty brains.

Want proof? You just read this article on polar bear sex organs; how many other articles on the environment did you read today? Pervert.


Minda Berbeco as a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science writer in the Bay area. Though she mocked her fellow Jumbos in this article, she was actually thrilled to be out in the Sierra wilderness this past weekend and by chance run into several Tufts alumnae. This further proves that Tufts has the most interesting, ambitious and adventurous students in the world. Go Jumbos!

Further Reading:
(a) Effects of climate warming on polar bears: a review of the evidence
(b) Polar Bears in a Warming Climate
(c) Organohalogen concentrations and a gross and histologic assessment of multiple organ systems in East Greenland polar bears (Ursus maritimus)
(d) Xenoendocrine pollutants may reduce size of sexual organs in East Greenland polar bears (Ursus maritimus)

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  1. Great humor here!

    Too bad I can’t share it with my young readers, but a skilled high school teacher could have a memorable classroom discussion–if that teacher is willing to risk the backlash from blue-nosed parents.

    By the way, is there any evidence that climate change or organohalogens promotes nose-blueing?

  2. Pingback: Polar bear dick size is apocalypse’s most recent casualty | Grist