We present new and revised data for the phocine distemper virus (PDV) epidemics that resulted in the deaths of more than 23 000 harbour seals Phoca vitulina in 1988 and 30,000 in 2002. On both occasions the epidemics started at the Danish island of Anholt in central Kattegat, and subsequently spread to adjacent colonies in a stepwise fashion. However, this pattern was not maintained throughout the epidemics and new centres of infection appeared far from infected populations on some occasions: in 1988 early positive cases were observed in the Irish Sea, and in 2002 the epidemic appeared in the Dutch Wadden Sea, 6 wk after the initiation of the outbreak at Anholt Island. Since the harbour seal is a rather sedentary species, such 'jumps' in the spread among colonies suggest that another vector species could have been involved. We discussed the role of sympatric species as disease vectors, and suggested that grey seal populations could act as reservoirs for PDV if infection rates in sympatric species are lower than in harbour seals. Alternatively, grey seals could act as subclinical infected carriers of the virus between Arctic and North Sea seal populations. Mixed colonies of grey and harbour seal colonies are found at all locations where the jumps occurred. It seems likely that grey seals, which show long-distance movements, contributed to the spread among regions. The harbour seal populations along the Norwegian coast and in the Baltic escaped both epidemics, which could be due either to genetic differences among harbour seal populations or to immunity. Catastrophic events such as repeated epidemics should be accounted for in future models and management strategies of wildlife populations.
Testing the hearing abilities of marine mammals under water is a challenging task. Sample sizes are usually low, thus limiting the ability to generalize findings of susceptibility towards noise influences. A method to measure harbor porpoise hearing thresholds in situ in outdoor conditions using auditory steady state responses of the brainstem was developed and tested. The method was used on 15 live-stranded animals from the North Sea during rehabilitation, shortly before release into the wild, and on 12 wild animals incidentally caught in pound nets in Denmark (inner Danish waters). Results indicated that although the variability between individuals is wide, the shape of the hearing curve is generally similar to previously published results from behavioral trials. Using 10-kHz frequency intervals between 10 and 160 kHz, best hearing was found between 120 and 130?kHz. Additional testing using one-third octave frequency intervals (from 16 to 160?kHz) allowed for a much faster hearing assessment, but eliminated the fine scale threshold characteristics. For further investigations, the method will be used to better understand the factors influencing sensitivity differences across individuals and to establish population-level parameters describing hearing abilities of harbor porpoises.
We studied the etiology of encephalitis in a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) that stranded in 2016 on the coast of Denmark. Dolphin morbillivirus (DMV) was detected in the brain and other organs. Phylogenetics showed close relation to DMV isolated from a striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) from Spain in 2012.
Harbor porpoises from the German North and Baltic Seas exhibit a higher incidence of bacterial infections compared to whales from less polluted arctic waters. The potential adverse effect of environmental contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals on the immune system and the health status of marine mammals is still discussed controversially. The aim of the present study was to investigate the possible influence of PCB, polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), toxaphene, (p,p'-dichlorodiphenyl)trichlorethane (DDT), and (p,p'-dichlorodiphenyl)dichlorethene (DDE) on the immune system of harbor porpoises. Lymphoid organs are influenced by a variety of factors, and therefore special emphasis was given to separating the confounding effect of age, health status, nutritional state, geographical location, and sex from the effect of contaminant levels upon thymus and spleen. Contaminant analysis and detailed pathological examinations were conducted on 61 by-caught and stranded whales from the North and Baltic Seas and Icelandic and Norwegian waters. Stranded harbor porpoises were more severely diseased than by-caught animals. Thymic atrophy and splenic depletion were significantly correlated to increased PCB and PBDE levels. However, lymphoid depletion was also associated with emaciation and an impaired health status. The present report supports the hypothesis of a contaminant-induced immunosuppression, possibly contributing to disease susceptibility in harbor porpoises. However, further studies are needed to determine if lymphoid depletion is primarily contaminant-induced or secondary to disease and emaciation in this cetacean species.
The 1988 and 2002 phocine distemper virus (PDV) outbreaks in European harbour seals Phoca vitulina are among the largest mass mortality events recorded in marine mammals. Despite its large impact on harbour seal population numbers, and 3 decades of studies, many questions regarding the spread and temporal origin of PDV remain unanswered. Here, we sequenced and analysed 7123 bp of the PDV genome, including the coding and non-coding regions of the entire P, M, F and H genes in tissues from 44 harbour seals to shed new light on the origin and spread of PDV in 1988 and 2002. The phylogenetic analyses trace the origin of the PDV strain causing the 1988 outbreak to between May 1987 and April 1988, while the origin of the strain causing the 2002 outbreak can be traced back to between June 2001 and May 2002. The analyses further point to several independent introductions of PDV in 1988, possibly linked to a southward mass immigration of harp seals in the winter and spring of 1987-1988. The vector for the 2002 outbreak is unknown, but the epidemiological analyses suggest the subsequent spread of PDV from the epicentre in the Kattegat, Denmark, to haul-out sites in the North Sea through several independent introductions.
An unprecedented 85 harbour porpoises stranded freshly dead along approximately 100 km of Danish coastline from 7-15 April, 2005. This total is considerably above the mean weekly stranding rate for the whole of Denmark, both for any time of year, 1.23 animals/week (ranging from 0 to 20 during 2003-2008, excluding April 2005), and specifically in April, 0.65 animals/week (0 to 4, same period). Bycatch was established as the cause of death for most of the individuals through typical indications of fisheries interactions, including net markings in the skin and around the flippers, and loss of tail flukes. Local fishermen confirmed unusually large porpoise bycatch in nets set for lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus) and the strandings were attributed to an early lumpfish season. However, lumpfish catches for 2005 were not unusual in terms of season onset, peak or total catch, when compared to 2003-2008. Consequently, human activity was combined with environmental factors and the variation in Danish fisheries landings (determined through a principal component analysis) in a two-part statistical model to assess the correlation of these factors with both the presence of fresh strandings and the numbers of strandings on the Danish west coast. The final statistical model (which was forward selected using Akaike information criterion; AIC) indicated that naval presence is correlated with higher rates of porpoise strandings, particularly in combination with certain fisheries, although it is not correlated with the actual presence of strandings. Military vessels from various countries were confirmed in the area from the 7th April, en route to the largest naval exercise in Danish waters to date (Loyal Mariner 2005, 11-28 April). Although sonar usage cannot be confirmed, it is likely that ships were testing various equipment prior to the main exercise. Thus naval activity cannot be ruled out as a possible contributing factor.
Zoonotic infections transmitted from terrestrial and marine mammals to humans in European Arctic are of unknown significance, despite considerable potential for transmission due to local hunt and a rapidly changing environment. As an example, infection with Brucella bacteria may have significant impact on human health due to consumption of raw meat or otherwise contact with tissues and fluids of infected game species such as muskoxen and polar bears. Here, we present serological results for Baffin Bay polar bears (Ursus maritimus) (n?=?96) and North East Greenland muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus) (n?=?32) for antibodies against Brucella spp. The analysis was a two-step trial initially using the Rose Bengal Test (RBT), followed by confirmative competitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays of RBT-positive samples. No muskoxen had antibodies against Brucella spp., while antibodies were detected in six polar bears (6.25%) rendering a seroprevalence in line with previous findings in other Arctic regions. Seropositivity was not related to sex, age or biometrics i.e. size and body condition. Whether Brucella spp. antibodies found in polar bears were due to either prey spill over or true recurrent Brucella spp. infections is unknown. Our results therefore highlight the importance of further research into the zoonotic aspects of Brucella spp. infections, and the impact on wildlife and human health in the Arctic region.
In recent years, several sound and movement recording tags have been developed to sample the acoustic field experienced by cetaceans and their reactions to it. However, little is known about how tag placement and an animal's orientation in the sound field affect the reliability of on-animal recordings as proxies for actual exposure. Here, we quantify sound exposure levels recorded with a DTAG-3 tag on a captive harbor porpoise exposed to vessel noise in a controlled acoustic environment. Results show that flow noise is limiting onboard noise recordings, whereas no evidence of body shading has been found for frequencies of 2-20 kHz.
Zoonotic infections transmitted from marine mammals to humans in the Baltic and European Arctic are of unknown significance, despite given considerable potential for transmission due to local hunt. Here we present results of an initial screening for Brucella spp. in Arctic and Baltic seal species. Baltic ringed seals (Pusa hispida, n?=?12) sampled in October 2015 and Greenland Sea harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus, n?=?6) and hooded seals (Cystophora cristata, n?=?3) sampled in March 2015 were serologically analysed for antibodies against Brucella spp. The serological analyses were performed using the Rose Bengal Test (RBT) followed by a confirmatory testing of RBT-positive samples by a competitive-enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (C-ELISA). Two of the Baltic ringed seals (a juvenile male and a juvenile female) were seropositive thus indicating previous exposure to a Brucella spp. The findings indicate that ringed seals in the Baltic ecosystem may be exposed to and possibly infected by Brucella spp. No seropositive individuals were detected among the Greenland harp and hooded seals. Although our initial screening shows a zoonotic hazard to Baltic locals, a more in-depth epidemiological investigation is needed in order to determine the human risk associated with this.