(Dec 11, 2002) Associated Press
Florida Bears Losing Their Hair

Press/Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission
More than half of the Black bears that live in an area of the Ocala National Forest, like this seen here in this 2002 photo taken near Lynn, Fit, are suffering from a unique type of mange that makes their hair fail out.

OCALA NATIONAL FOREST, Fla. — More than half of the black bears living in the forest around the Marion County community of Lynne are suffering from a unique type of mange that causes their hair to fall out.

It is the only area in the country where biologists say they have seen a relatively large number of bears with the affliction.

"They look like a large, bald rat," said Mark Cunningham, veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "I show pictures to people who don't even recognize they are bears."

Cunningham said the mange, a type similar to what can afflict dogs, is linked to tiny mites that attack the bears' skin. Most bears can have some mites, but the Lynne bears seem to have far more than normal

More than 15 bears — about 60 percent of those in the area have varying degrees of hair loss. About 90 percent of the females have it, and the illness seems to be handed down to their cubs.

Some cubs outgrow the condition and get hair, according to reports. Others do not; their follicles become calloused and incapable of growing hair.

Some bears lose hair around the face or rear. But the worst cases turn bears completely bald, exposing a grayish, bumpy skin.

They often are covered in bites from mosquitoes and other insects, but biologists do not know whether the animals are more susceptible to mosquito-borne viruses such as encephalitis or West Nile.

The first balding cases were seen in bears killed by vehicles along forest roads.

In 1999, Fish and Wildlife officials started a study of bear activity along State Road 40 just east of Lynne — one of the state's deadliest roads for bears.

Part of that study, which recorded bears crossing a 10-mile stretch of S.R. 40, fitted radio-transmitter collars on several of the animals to track how far they travel in a year.

Biologists eventually became curious about several bears with hair loss.