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Infectious disease and toxicological monitoring of stranded pacific harbor seals (phoca vitulina richardsi) in cook inlet as surrogates for monitoring endangered belugas (delphinapterus leucas)

Bauer Kendra L., Goertz Caroline E. C., Belovarac Jane A., Walton Robert W., Dunn J. Lawrence, Tuomi Pamela
Journal of zoo and wildlife medicine 2016 v.47 no.3 pp. 770-780
Delphinapterus leucas, burden of disease, philopatry, Brucella, Canine morbillivirus, Leptospira interrogans, serology, flora, toxicology, screening, pathogens, dolphins, monitoring, Neospora caninum, Phoca vitulina, Toxoplasma gondii, seals, Phocine morbillivirus, avian influenza, habitats, Sarcocystis neurona, bacteria, Alaska
Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardsi) and belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) eat many of the same prey species, occupy the same geographic area, and demonstrate site fidelity in Cook Inlet, Alaska. Although most direct research involving the critically endangered belugas is currently prohibited, studying harbor seals may provide important information about this beluga population. In recent years, harbor seal populations in Alaska have declined for unknown reasons. As part of its stranding program, the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) managed 59 cases of live and dead stranded harbor seals from Cook Inlet between 1997 and 2011. Animals were screened for a variety of diseases and contaminants of concern. Animals were negative by serology to the following diseases: avian influenza, canine distemper virus, dolphin morbillivirus, porpoise morbillivirus, Leptospira canicola, L. grippotyphosa, L. pomona, Neospora caninum, Sarcocystis neurona, and Toxoplasma gondii. Positive titers were found against Brucella spp., phocine distemper virus, seal herpesvirus-1, L. bratislava, L. hardjo, and L. icterohemorrhagiae. All titers were stable or declining except in one animal with an increasing titer for seal herpesvirus-1. Fecal pathogen screenings identified normal flora as well as stable or declining low levels of potentially pathogenic and opportunistic bacteria, though most were of little concern for seal health. In most animals, toxicology screening showed that the majority of tested contaminants were below detectable limits. The level of evidence of exposure to pathogens of concern was low in harbor seals. Although the infectious disease burden and contaminant levels in belugas in Cook Inlet cannot be definitively determined without direct testing, pathogen and contaminant exposure is expected to be similar to that found in harbor seals in this region, as the harbor seals and belugas share the habitat and food resources.