In another sign of just how far the influence of human associated pollution now stretches, researchers have found that western Arctic Beluga Whale populations are now infected with a parasite most commonly found in the poop of domestic cats — Toxoplasma gondii.
The findings have prompted a health advisory warning to be issued to the Inuit people who rely on these whales for sustenance — as Toxoplasma gondii infections can cause serious problems for humans. Among the researchers other findings is the discovery of a new strain of parasite — one that was apparently responsible for the deaths of 406 grey seals in the northern Atlantic back in 2012.
The new findings were recently presented at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by researchers Michael Grigg and Stephen Raverty from UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit. Grigg states that one of the drivers of the parasite’s spread is the “big thaw” currently occurring in the Arctic — one that is allowing “never-before-seen movement of pathogens between the Arctic and the lower latitudes.”
“Ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens,” explains Grigg, a molecular parasitologist with the US National Institutes of Health and an adjunct professor at UBC. “What we’re seeing with the big thaw is the liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc.”
“Toxoplasmosis, also known as kitty litter disease, is the leading cause of infectious blindness in humans and can be fatal to fetuses and to people and animals with compromised immune systems.”
“Belugas are not only an integral part of Inuit culture and folklore, but also a major staple of the traditional diet. Hunters and community members are very concerned about food safety and security,” adds Raverty, a veterinary pathologist with the BC Ministry of Agriculture and Lands’ Animal Health Centre and an adjunct professor at UBC. Raverty has led the systematic sampling and screening of hunter-harvested Beluga for 14 years.
The newly discovered strain of parasite responsible for the 2012 grey seal die-off — which has been named Sarcocystis pinnipedi — has now also been tied to a large number of other die-offs. It’s now been confirmed to have been responsible for the recent deaths of everything from endangered Steller sea lions, to walruses, to Hawaiian monk seals, to grizzly and polar bears.
No surprise there, when populations that have been separate for long periods of time re-converge, one of the populations almost invariably gets the rough end of it — generally experiencing large die-offs as the result of exposure to diseases which they don’t have resistance to.
Image Credit: UBC