Harbor seals (Photo by Dr. Brandon Southall, NMFS/OPR, courtesy NOAA Photo Library, https://www.flickr.com/photos/noaaphotolib/)
CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study by microbiologists at Oregon State University has concluded that an unsuspected bacterial infection, rather than a viral disease, was associated with the stranding and death of seven harbor seals on the California coast in 2009.
The research, made with a powerful investigative method called “meta-transcriptomics,” found a high incidence of infection in the seals with the bacterial pathogen Burkholderia, and provides the first report in the Americas of this bacteria in a wild harbor seal.
The bacteria probably did not directly cause the death of the seals, researchers say, but this provides further evidence of the increase in emerging marine pathogens, and the need for improved monitoring and study of zoonotic diseases that could affect both human and wildlife populations.
In light of these findings, OSU researchers also remind the public that they should not touch stranded or dead marine mammals.
The research was recently published in PLOS ONE, in work supported by Oregon Sea Grant and the National Science Foundation.
“We now have improved tools to better identify new diseases as they emerge from natural reservoirs, and can record and track these events,” said Rebecca Vega-Thurber, an assistant professor of microbiology in the OSU College of Science. “It’s becoming clear there are more pathogens than we knew of in the past, and that some of them can move into human populations.
“This is why it’s increasingly important that we accurately pinpoint the cause of these diseases, and understand the full range of causes that may factor into these deaths.”