Vertebrate surface structures, including mammalian skin and hair structures, have undergone various modifications during evolution in accordance with functional specializations. Harbour seals rely on their vibrissal system for orientation and foraging. To maintain tactile sensitivity even at low temperatures, the vibrissal follicles are heated up intensely, which could cause severe heat loss to the environment. We analysed skin samples of different body parts of harbour seals, and expected to see higher hair densities at the vibrissal pads as a way to reduce heat loss. In addition to significantly higher hair densities around the vibrissae than on the rest of the body, we show a unique fur structure of hair bundles consisting of broad guard hairs along with hairs of a new type, smaller than guard hairs but broader than underhairs, which we defined as ‘intermediate hairs’. This fur composition has not been reported for any mammal so far and may serve for thermal insulation as well as drag reduction. Furthermore, we describe a scale-like skin structure that also presumably plays a role in drag reduction.
guard hair; pilosebaceous unit; skin structure; intermediate hair; hydrodynamics; surface drag
Pinnipeds are frequently infected by the lungworms Otostrongylus circumlitus and Parafilaroides gymnurus (Metastrongyloidea). Infections are frequently associated with secondary bacterial bronchopneumonia and are often lethal. To date, a reliable lungworm diagnosis in individual seals is only possible during necropsy as examination of faeces collected from resting places does not allow assignment to individuals. Therefore, a diagnostic tool for lungworm detection in living seals is desirable for monitoring health of seals in the wild and in captivity. Previously, an ELISA based on recombinant bovine lungworm major sperm protein (MSP) as diagnostic antigen was developed for lungworm diagnosis in cattle. In the present study, this test was adapted for detection of antibodies against lungworms in harbour (Phoca vitulina) and grey seals (Halichoerus grypus). Furthermore, sera of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) were tested to evaluate whether the harbour/grey seal ELISA is suitable for this seal species as well.
For ELISA evaluation, lungworm-positive and -negative sera of harbour and grey seals were analysed using horseradish peroxidase (HRP)-conjugated Protein A as secondary antibody. Optical density was measured and a receiver operating characteristic (ROC) analysis was performed to determine a cut-off value. Potential cross-reactions were examined by testing serum of seals positive for gastrointestinal and heart nematodes, but negative for lungworm infections. In addition, sera of northern elephant seals were analysed.
Harbour and grey seal serum samples showed significant differences in optical density (OD) between serum of infected and uninfected animals resulting in a cut-off value of 0.422 OD with a specificity of 100 % (95 % CI: 87.23-100 %) and a sensitivity of 97.83 % (95 % CI: 88.47-99.94 %). Cross-reactions with heart or gastrointestinal nematodes were not observed. Analysis of northern elephant seal samples resulted in detection of antibodies in animals positive for lungworm larvae at faecal examination.
The ELISA presented is a valuable method for detection of lungworm infections in live harbour and grey seals, providing a monitoring tool to reveal epidemiological dynamics of lungworm infections during health surveillance in free-ranging seals. Furthermore, ELISA results may aid institutions with harbour and grey seals under human care on decisions regarding anthelminthic treatment of individual animals.
ELISA; Major sperm protein; Phoca vitulina; Halichoerus grypus; Lungworm infection; Verminous pneumonia; Metastrongyloidea; Otostrongylus circumlitus; Parafilaroides gymnurus
Colonial pinnipeds may be subject to substantial consumptive competition because they are large, slow-moving central place foragers. We examined possible mechanisms for reducing this competition by examining the diving behaviour of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) after equipping 34 seals (11 females, 23 males) foraging from three locations; Rømø, Denmark and Lorenzenplate and Helgoland, Germany, in the Wadden Sea area with time-depth recorders. Analysis of 319,021 dives revealed little between-colony variation but appreciable inter-sex differences, with males diving deeper than females, but for shorter periods. Males also had higher vertical descent rates. This result suggests that males may have higher overall swim speeds, which would increase higher oxygen consumption, and may explain the shorter dive durations compared to females. Intersex variation in swim speed alone is predicted to lead to fundamental differences in the time use of three-dimensional space, which may help reduce consumptive competition in harbour seals and other colonial pinnipeds.
Pinniped; Dive behaviour; Sexual segregation; Dive duration; Swim speed; Harbour seal
influenza A virus; harbor seals; H10N7; viruses; Germany; influenza; Phoca vitulina
Phocine distemper virus (PDV) was first recognized in 1988 following a massive epidemic in harbor and grey seals in north-western Europe. Since then, the epidemiology of infection in North Atlantic and Arctic pinnipeds has been investigated. In the western North Atlantic endemic infection in harp and grey seals predates the European epidemic, with relatively small, localized mortality events occurring primarily in harbor seals. By contrast, PDV seems not to have become established in European harbor seals following the 1988 epidemic and a second event of similar magnitude and extent occurred in 2002. PDV is a distinct species within the Morbillivirus genus with minor sequence variation between outbreaks over time. There is now mounting evidence of PDV-like viruses in the North Pacific/Western Arctic with serological and molecular evidence of infection in pinnipeds and sea otters. However, despite the absence of associated mortality in the region, there is concern that the virus may infect the large Pacific harbor seal and northern elephant seal populations or the endangered Hawaiian monk seals. Here, we review the current state of knowledge on PDV with particular focus on developments in diagnostics, pathogenesis, immune response, vaccine development, phylogenetics and modeling over the past 20 years.
Morbillivirus; pinnipeds; sea otter; CD150/SLAM; phylogeny; pathology; epidemiology; immunity; vaccine
Little is known about migration patterns and seasonal distribution away from coastal summer feeding habitats of many pelagic baleen whales. Recently, large-scale passive acoustic monitoring networks have become available to explore migration patterns and identify critical habitats of these species. North Atlantic minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) perform seasonal migrations between high latitude summer feeding and low latitude winter breeding grounds. While the distribution and abundance of the species has been studied across their summer range, data on migration and winter habitat are virtually missing. Acoustic recordings, from 16 different sites from across the North Atlantic, were analyzed to examine the seasonal and geographic variation in minke whale pulse train occurrence, infer information about migration routes and timing, and to identify possible winter habitats.
Acoustic detections show that minke whales leave their winter grounds south of 30° N from March through early April. On their southward migration in autumn, minke whales leave waters north of 40° N from mid-October through early November. In the western North Atlantic spring migrants appear to track the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream along the continental shelf, while whales travel farther offshore in autumn. Abundant detections were found off the southeastern US and the Caribbean during winter. Minke whale pulse trains showed evidence of geographic variation, with longer pulse trains recorded south of 40° N. Very few pulse trains were recorded during summer in any of the datasets.
This study highlights the feasibility of using acoustic monitoring networks to explore migration patterns of pelagic marine mammals. Results confirm the presence of minke whales off the southeastern US and the Caribbean during winter months. The absence of pulse train detections during summer suggests either that minke whales switch their vocal behaviour at this time of year, are absent from available recording sites or that variation in signal structure influenced automated detection. Alternatively, if pulse trains are produced in a reproductive context by males, these data may indicate their absence from the selected recording sites. Evidence of geographic variation in pulse train duration suggests different behavioural functions or use of these calls at different latitudes.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s40462-014-0024-3) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Passive acoustic monitoring (PAM); Minke whales; Balaenoptera acutorostrata; Migration; Pulse trains; Seasonality; Geographic variation
Coastal dolphins are regarded as indicators of changes in coastal marine ecosystem health that could impact humans utilizing the marine environment for food or recreation. Necropsy and histology examinations were performed on 35 Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) and five Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa plumbea) incidentally caught in shark nets off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, South Africa, between 2010 and 2012. Parasitic lesions included pneumonia (85%), abdominal and thoracic serositis (75%), gastroenteritis (70%), hepatitis (62%), and endometritis (42%). Parasitic species identified were Halocercus sp. (lung), Crassicauda sp. (skeletal muscle) and Xenobalanus globicipitis (skin). Additional findings included bronchiolar epithelial mineralisation (83%), splenic filamentous tags (45%), non-suppurative meningoencephalitis (39%), and myocardial fibrosis (26%). No immunohistochemically positive reaction was present in lesions suggestive of dolphin morbillivirus, Toxoplasma gondii and Brucella spp. The first confirmed cases of lobomycosis and sarcocystosis in South African dolphins were documented. Most lesions were mild, and all animals were considered to be in good nutritional condition, based on blubber thickness and muscle mass. Apparent temporal changes in parasitic disease prevalence may indicate a change in the host/parasite interface. This study provided valuable baseline information on conditions affecting coastal dolphin populations in South Africa and, to our knowledge, constitutes the first reported systematic health assessment in incidentally caught dolphins in the Southern Hemisphere. Further research on temporal disease trends as well as disease pathophysiology and anthropogenic factors affecting these populations is needed.
For decades, the bio-duck sound has been recorded in the Southern Ocean, but the animal producing it has remained a mystery. Heard mainly during austral winter in the Southern Ocean, this ubiquitous sound has been recorded in Antarctic waters and contemporaneously off the Australian west coast. Here, we present conclusive evidence that the bio-duck sound is produced by Antarctic minke whales (Balaenoptera bonaerensis). We analysed data from multi-sensor acoustic recording tags that included intense bio-duck sounds as well as singular downsweeps that have previously been attributed to this species. This finding allows the interpretation of a wealth of long-term acoustic recordings for this previously acoustically concealed species, which will improve our understanding of the distribution, abundance and behaviour of Antarctic minke whales. This is critical information for a species that inhabits a difficult to access sea-ice environment that is changing rapidly in some regions and has been the subject of contentious lethal sampling efforts and ongoing international legal action.
Balaenoptera bonaerensis; bio-duck; Antarctic minke whale; Southern Ocean; acoustic monitoring
In-air anthropogenic sound has the potential to affect grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) behaviour and interfere with acoustic communication. In this study, a new method was used to deliver acoustic signals to grey seals as part of an in-air hearing assessment. Using in-ear headphones with adapted ear inserts allowed for the measurement of auditory brainstem responses (ABR) on sedated grey seals exposed to 5-cycle (2-1-2) tone pips. Thresholds were measured at 10 frequencies between 1–20 kHz. Measurements were made using subcutaneous electrodes on wild seals from the Baltic and North Seas. Thresholds were determined by both visual and statistical approaches (single point F-test) and good agreement was obtained between the results using both methods. The mean auditory thresholds were ≤40 dB re 20 µPa peak equivalent sound pressure level (peSPL) between 4–20 kHz and showed similar patterns to in-air behavioural hearing tests of other phocid seals between 3 and 20 kHz. Below 3 kHz, a steep reduction in hearing sensitivity was observed, which differed from the rate of decline in sensitivity obtained in behavioural studies on other phocids. Differences in the rate of decline may reflect influence of the ear inserts on the ability to reliably transmit lower frequencies or interference from the structure of the distal end of the ear canal.
Arcanobacterium phocisimile, a newly described species with the type strain A. phocisimile 2698T isolated from a vaginal swab of a harbour seal and four additional A. phocisimile strains also isolated from four harbour seals could reliably be identified by phenotypic properties, by matrix assisted laser desorption ionization time of flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), and by sequencing the genomic targets 16S rDNA and 16S-23S rDNA intergenic spacer region and the genes rpoB and gap. The A. phocisimile strains investigated in the present study were isolated together with several other bacterial species indicating that the pathogenic importance of A. phocisimile remains unclear. However, the detection of peptidic spectra by MALDI-TOF MS and the presented phenotypic and genotypic approach might help to identify A. phocisimile in future.
Facing numerous challenges, such as illness, storms or human disturbance, some harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) pups lose contact to their dams and are found abandoned along the North Sea coast. In Schleswig-Holstein, pups with the prospect of surviving rehabilitation are admitted to the Seal Center Friedrichskoog. Despite elaborate clinical health assessments on admission, including differential hematology, in 2010, 17% of 108 admitted pups did not survive the first 20 days. The death rate during the years 2006 and 2009 varied between 9 and 19%. To broaden the spectrum of variables which could be predictive for survival, blood gas and serum analyses were performed for 99 pups using venous blood. Variables included total CO2, pH, partial CO2, HCO3–, base excess and anion gap as well as glucose, urea nitrogen, sodium, potassium and chloride. Moreover, total serum protein and fat (triglyceride) concentrations were measured for all pups on admission.
Repeated measurements of 12 randomly selected individuals revealed a significant (p = 0.002) positive influence of time in rehabilitation on triglyceride concentrations. This trend probably shows the improvement of the pups’ nutritional status as a consequence of the shift from milk replacer formula to fish. No such positive influence was detected for total protein concentrations though. Hematologic values, including blood gases, were not predictive for survival.
For the first time blood gas values are reported in this study for a large sample size (N = 99) of seal pups (regardless of their health status). The ranges and medians calculated from the data can serve as a stepping stone towards the establishment of reference values for neonate harbor seals. However, future investigations on the development of blood gases in harbor seals with different health conditions and ages over time are necessary to allow for a better understanding of acid–base regulation in harbor seals.
Blood gas analysis; Serum fat (triglycerides); Serum protein; Harbor seal pups; Rehabilitation; Phoca vitulina
The harbour porpoise is exposed to increasing pressure caused by anthropogenic activities in its marine environment. Numerous offshore wind farms are planned or under construction in the North and Baltic Seas, which will increase underwater noise during both construction and operation. A better understanding of how anthropogenic impacts affect the behaviour, health, endocrinology, immunology and physiology of the animals is thus needed. The present study compares levels of stress hormones and mRNA expression of cytokines and acute-phase proteins in blood samples of harbour porpoises exposed to different levels of stress during handling, in rehabilitation or permanent human care.
Free-ranging harbour porpoises, incidentally caught in pound nets in Denmark, were compared to harbour porpoises in rehabilitation at SOS Dolfijn in Harderwijk, the Netherlands, and individuals permanently kept in human care in the Dolfinarium Harderwijk and Fjord & Belt Kerteminde, Denmark. Blood samples were investigated for catecholamines, adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine, as well as for adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), cortisol, metanephrine and normetanephrine. mRNA expression levels of relevant cell mediators (cytokines IL-10 and TNFα, acute-phase proteins haptoglobin and C-reactive protein and the heat shock protein HSP70) were measured using real-time PCR.
Biomarker expression levels varied between free-ranging animals and porpoises in human care. Hormone and cytokine ranges showed correlations to each other and to the health status of investigated harbour porpoises. Hormone concentrations were higher in free-ranging harbour porpoises than in animals in human care. Adrenaline can be used as a parameter for the initial reaction to acute stress situations; noradrenaline, dopamine, ACTH and cortisol are more likely indicators for the following minutes of acute stress. There is evidence for different correlations between production of normetanephrine, metanephrine, cortisol and the expression of IL-10, HSP70 and haptoglobin.
The expression patterns of the selected molecular biomarkers of the immune system are promising to reflect the health and immune status of the harbour porpoise under different levels of stress.
Harbour porpoise; Stress hormones; Cytokines; Anthropogenic impact; Offshore wind farms; Underwater noise
Ecological indicators for monitoring strategies are expected to combine three major characteristics: ecological significance, statistical credibility, and cost-effectiveness. Strategies based on stranding networks rank highly in cost-effectiveness, but their ecological significance and statistical credibility are disputed. Our present goal is to improve the value of stranding data as population indicator as part of monitoring strategies by constructing the spatial and temporal null hypothesis for strandings. The null hypothesis is defined as: small cetacean distribution and mortality are uniform in space and constant in time. We used a drift model to map stranding probabilities and predict stranding patterns of cetacean carcasses under H0 across the North Sea, the Channel and the Bay of Biscay, for the period 1990–2009. As the most common cetacean occurring in this area, we chose the harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena for our modelling. The difference between these strandings expected under H0 and observed strandings is defined as the stranding anomaly. It constituted the stranding data series corrected for drift conditions. Seasonal decomposition of stranding anomaly suggested that drift conditions did not explain observed seasonal variations of porpoise strandings. Long-term stranding anomalies increased first in the southern North Sea, the Channel and Bay of Biscay coasts, and finally the eastern North Sea. The hypothesis of changes in porpoise distribution was consistent with local visual surveys, mostly SCANS surveys (1994 and 2005). This new indicator could be applied to cetacean populations across the world and more widely to marine megafauna.
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.
Systematic pathological investigations to assess the health status of seabirds and coastal birds in Germany were performed. The investigation was conducted to obtain data on possible causes of decline in seabird and coastal bird populations.
48 individuals of 11 different species of seabirds and coastal birds were collected by the stranding network along the entire German North Sea coast from 1997 to 2008, including mainly waders such as Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) and red knots (Calidris canutus) as well as seabirds such as northern fulmars (Fulmaris glacialis) and common scoters (Melanitta nigra).
For most birds (n = 31) found dead along the shore no obvious cause of death was evident, while 17 individuals were killed by collisions with lighthouses.
Overall, the nutritional status of the investigated birds was very poor, and the body mass in most cases was significantly lower compared to masses of living birds caught during the same periods of the year. This is partly linked to chronic parasitic or bacterial infections in different organs or to septicaemia. In some cases infections with zoonotic tuberculosis caused by Mycobacterium spp. were found. Avian influenza was not found in any of the collected birds.
The presented data contribute to the evaluation of the health status of birds in the German North Sea. Moreover, they present an important tool for the assessment of potential pathogens with an impact on the health status of seabirds and coastal birds.
Seabirds; Coastal birds; Pathology; North Sea; German waters
Mercury is known to bioaccumulate and to magnify in marine mammals, which is a cause of great concern in terms of their general health. In particular, the immune system is known to be susceptible to long-term mercury exposure. The aims of the present study were (1) to determine the mercury level in the blood of free-ranging harbour seals from the North Sea and (2) to examine the link between methylmercury in vitro exposure and immune functions using seal and human mitogen-stimulated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (T-lymphocytes).
Total mercury was analysed in the blood of 22 harbour seals. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells were isolated from seals (n = 11) and from humans (n = 9). Stimulated lymphocytes of both species were exposed to functional tests (proliferation, metabolic activity, radioactive precursor incorporation) under increasing doses of methylmercury (0.1 to 10 μM). The expression of cytokines (IL-2, IL-4 and TGF-β) was investigated in seal lymphocytes by RT-PCR and by real time quantitative PCR (n = 5) at methylmercury concentrations of 0.2 and 1 μM. Finally, proteomics analysis was attempted on human lymphocytes (cytoplasmic fraction) in order to identify biochemical pathways of toxicity at concentration of 1 μM (n = 3).
The results showed that the number of seal lymphocytes, viability, metabolic activity, DNA and RNA synthesis were reduced in vitro, suggesting deleterious effects of methylmercury concentrations naturally encountered in free-ranging seals. Similar results were found for human lymphocytes. Functional tests showed that a 1 μM concentration was the critical concentration above which lymphocyte activity, proliferation and survival were compromised. The expression of IL-2 and TGF-β mRNA was weaker in exposed seal lymphocytes compared to control cells (0.2 and 1 μM). Proteomics showed some variation in the protein expression profile (e.g. vimentin).
Our results suggest that seal and human PBMCs react in a comparable way to MeHg in vitro exposure with, however, larger inter-individual variations. MeHg could be an additional cofactor in the immunosuppressive pollutant cocktail generally described in the blood of seals and this therefore raises the possibility of additional additive effects in the marine mammal immune system.
Dolphin; distemper; morbillivirus; encephalitis; letter
Understanding the role of seascape in shaping genetic and demographic population structure is highly challenging for marine pelagic species such as cetaceans for which there is generally little evidence of what could effectively restrict their dispersal. In the present work, we applied a combination of recent individual-based landscape genetic approaches to investigate the population genetic structure of a highly mobile extensive range cetacean, the harbour porpoise in the eastern North Atlantic, with regards to oceanographic characteristics that could constrain its dispersal.
Analyses of 10 microsatellite loci for 752 individuals revealed that most of the sampled range in the eastern North Atlantic behaves as a 'continuous' population that widely extends over thousands of kilometres with significant isolation by distance (IBD). However, strong barriers to gene flow were detected in the south-eastern part of the range. These barriers coincided with profound changes in environmental characteristics and isolated, on a relatively small scale, porpoises from Iberian waters and on a larger scale porpoises from the Black Sea.
The presence of these barriers to gene flow that coincide with profound changes in oceanographic features, together with the spatial variation in IBD strength, provide for the first time strong evidence that physical processes have a major impact on the demographic and genetic structure of a cetacean. This genetic pattern further suggests habitat-related fragmentation of the porpoise range that is likely to intensify with predicted surface ocean warming.
We investigated the feeding ecology and habitat use of 32 harbour porpoises by-caught in 4 localities along the Scandinavian coast from the North Sea to the Barents Sea using time-integrative markers: stable isotopes (δ13C, δ15N) and trace elements (Zn, Cu, Fe, Se, total Hg and Cd), in relation to habitat characteristics (bathymetry) and geographic position (latitude).
Among the trace elements analysed, only Cd, with an oceanic specific food origin, was found to be useful as an ecological tracer. All other trace elements studied were not useful, most likely because of physiological regulation and/or few specific sources in the food web. The δ13C, δ15N signatures and Cd levels were highly correlated with each other, as well as with local bathymetry and geographic position (latitude). Variation in the isotopic ratios indicated a shift in harbour porpoise's feeding habits from pelagic prey species in deep northern waters to more coastal and/or demersal prey in the relatively shallow North Sea and Skagerrak waters. This result is consistent with stomach content analyses found in the literature. This shift was associated with a northward Cd-enrichment which provides further support to the Cd 'anomaly' previously reported in polar waters and suggests that porpoises in deep northern waters include Cd-contaminated prey in their diet, such as oceanic cephalopods.
As stable isotopes and Cd provide information in the medium and the long term respectively, the spatial variation found, shows that harbour porpoises experience different ecological regimes during the year along the Scandinavian coasts, adapting their feeding habits to local oceanographic conditions, without performing extensive migration.
Approximately 21,700 seals died during a morbillivirus epidemic in northwestern Europe in 2002. Phocine distemper virus 1 was isolated from seals in German waters. The sequence of the P gene showed 97% identity with the Dutch virus isolated in 1988. There was 100% identity with the Dutch isolate from 2002 and a single nucleotide mismatch with the Danish isolate.
harbor seal; phocine distemper virus; germany; RT-PCR; immunohistochemistry; serology