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Heartworm (Acanthocheilonema spirocauda) and seal louse (Echinophthirius horridus) infections in harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) from the North and Baltic Seas

Kristina Lehnert, Eva Schwanke, Kerstin Hahn, Peter Wohlsein, Ursula Siebert
Journal of sea research 2016 v.113 pp. 65-72
Acanthocheilonema, Phoca vitulina, adults, autumn, blood, blood sampling, coasts, epidemiology, genes, heartworms, immunology, lice, microfilariae, monitoring, neonates, seals, spring, surveys, yearlings, Baltic Sea
The seal louse (Echinophthirius [E.] horridus) and the heartworm (Acanthocheilonema [A.] spirocauda) are parasites of harbour seal (Phoca vitulina). Little is known about the role of the seal louse as a potential vector and its role for the development and transmission of heartworm larvae to their final host, the harbour seal. The life-cycle of the heartworm is still not fully understood. For the presented study, findings of 1191 stranded harbour seals collected along the North- and Baltic Sea coast between 1996 and 2013 were examined. 4.4% (n=53) of these harbour seals were infected with adult heartworms and 3.4% (n=40) harbour seals carried seal lice. The highest prevalence and level of infection with adult heartworms (A. spirocauda) (9.3%) and seal lice (E. horridus) (8.9%) were found on yearling harbour seals (7–18months) compared to neonate and adult seals. Investigating seal lice (n=35) for larval heartworm stages one larvae was encountered in an ethanol-fixated seal louse. During a health monitoring survey of live harbour seals, 109 animals were captured and examined during spring and autumn between 2008 and 2014. Blood samples were taken and microfilariae were discovered in blood smears in 41% (n=45) of the examined harbour seals. Yearling seals (n=21) showed higher prevalence (86%) and level of infection with microfilariae than adults. Microfilariae were identified as A. spirocauda by sequencing the species-specific COI gene in 24 blood samples. The high prevalence of microfilariae of A. spirocauda in blood samples (41%) is in contrast to the low prevalence of mature infections/adult specimens in stranded seals (4.4%) investigated. Although rare parasites of seals, the recent increase in prevalence of heartworm and seal lice in stranded seals and the relatively high occurrence of microfilaria in the free-ranging population underscore the importance of further studies investigating the immunology of infections and their transmission pathways, as well as the epidemiology of both species.