NOV 13, 2019 7:58 PM PST

As Arctic Sea Ice Declines, a Deadly Virus Spreads Among Marine Mammals

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Sea ice in the Arctic melts every summer and refreezes in the winter, but the melting has been outpacing the refreezing for many years. According to NASA, Arctic sea ice now declines at a rate of 12.85 percent every ten years. That reduction seems to now be impacting marine mammals; researchers have linked the decline to the emergence of a virus called phocine distemper virus (PDV) that infects North Pacific marine mammals. The PDV pathogen killed thousands of harbor seals in the North Atlantic in 2002, and was found in northern sea otters that reside in Alaska in 2004.  

Scientists at the University of California, Davis wanted to know more about how the virus reached Alaska, and conducted a study using data collected from 2001 to 2016, which has now been published in Scientific Reports. They hypothesized that as historic sea ice has been dramatically reshaped, it's allowed the virus to move into the Northern Pacific.

"The loss of sea ice is leading marine wildlife to seek and forage in new habitats and removing that physical barrier, allowing for new pathways for them to move," said the corresponding author of the study Tracey Goldstein, associate director of the One Health Institute at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "As animals move and come in contact with other species, they carry opportunities to introduce and transmit new infectious disease, with potentially devastating impacts."

The scientists found that about 30 percent of some sea mammals tested positive for the virus in 2003 and 2004. The virus then began to decline before peaking again in 2009. Satellite images showed that there were open water routes were present in 2002, 2005, and 2008, and suggested that infected animals can carry PDV over long distances.

Harbor seal / Credit: Max Pixel

The virus has varied impacts on different species. Atlantic harbor seals are highly susceptible, while grey seals, for example, don't suffer the same population losses.

"As sea ice continues its melting trend, the opportunities for this virus and other pathogens to cross between North Atlantic and North Pacific marine mammals may become more common," said the first author of the study Elizabeth VanWormer, who conducted this research as a UC Davis postdoctoral fellow and is now an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. "This study highlights the need to understand PDV transmission and the potential for outbreaks in sensitive species within this rapidly changing environment."


Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via University of California Davis, Scientific Reports

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
JAN 02, 2020
Microbiology
JAN 02, 2020
New Ideas About How Bacteria Control Cell Division
Cell division is a crucial process for life; in order to create and maintain multicellular organisms, cells have to make more cells by dividing....
JAN 28, 2020
Technology
JAN 28, 2020
Portable device analyzes microbes in the environment
Aquatic microbes often serve as challenge to study, after all, they are too tiny to detect. But, what if there was a device that can swiftly analyze aquati...
FEB 19, 2020
Immunology
FEB 19, 2020
Rainbow trout hold the key to unravelling immunological mysteries
What do the gut microbiome, antibodies, and rainbow trout have in common? A lot, says researcher J. Oriol Sunyer from the University of Pennsylvania’...
MAR 05, 2020
Microbiology
MAR 05, 2020
Researchers Learn How Gut Microbes Can Promote Heart Disease
The microbes in our gastrointestinal tract, collectively known as the gut microbiome, have a powerful impact on our health and well-being....
MAR 17, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
MAR 17, 2020
Targeting RNA With CRISPR
Researchers screened thousands of target molecules to find the most effective targets, and have made their data openly available....
MAR 24, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
MAR 24, 2020
Certain Drugs May Raise the Risk of a Severe COVID-19 Infection
ACEIs and ARBs may make coronavirus infections worse, which can help explain why older adults are faring so much worse....
Loading Comments...