DAO 67:239-247 (2005)  -  doi:10.3354/dao067239

Changes in epizoic crustacean infestations during cetacean die-offs: the mass mortality of Mediterranean striped dolphins Stenella coeruleoalba revisited

F. J. Aznar*, D. Perdiguero, A. Pérez del Olmo, A. Repullés, C. Agustí, J. A. Raga

Marine Zoology Unit, Cavanilles Institute of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology, University of Valencia, PO Box 22085, 46071 Valencia, Spain

ABSTRACT: In the summer and autumn of 1990, a cetacean morbillivirus caused a massive epizootic mortality of striped dolphins Stenella coeruleoalba in the western Mediterranean. Previous circumstantial evidence suggested that the disease could also have increased host susceptibility to infestations with epizoic crustaceans. In this study we provide strong evidence supporting this hypothesis. We examined striped dolphins stranded along the Mediterranean central coast of Spain from 1981 to 2004 (n = 136), and recorded data on prevalence, intensity of infestation, size and reproductive status of 2 sessile crustacean species specific to cetaceans, the phoront cirriped Xenobalanus globicipitis and the mesoparasitic copepod Pennella balaenopterae. Compared with the pre-epizootic (n = 12) and post-epizootic (n = 62) dolphin samples, the following changes were noted in the dolphins stranded during the epizootic (n = 62): (1) the prevalence of both X. globicipitis and P. balaenopterae increased; (2) the intensity of X. globicipitis and P. balaenopterae infestations did not increase; indeed, it was even slightly lower than in the other periods, as was their degree of aggregation; (3) individuals of both species were smaller, and a higher proportion were non-gravid; (4) the 2 species tended to co-occur in the same dolphins, but their numbers did not co-vary. These patterns strongly suggest that, during the epizootic, there was a short-term increase in the probability of infestation of these 2 species because of the sudden rise in the population of susceptible hosts; the growth of the new recruits was limited by the early death of dolphins. The high susceptibility was likely related to the immunosuppressive effects of viral infection and the abnormally heavy loads of polychlorinated biphenyls found in sick dolphins; the level of inbreeding was also higher in dolphins from the ‘epizootic’ sample. Epizoic crustaceans could be suitable indicators of health in cetacean populations.

KEY WORDS: Cetacean · Morbillivirus · Epidemics · Mass mortality · Epibiont · Parasite · Susceptibility

Full text in pdf format