DAO 77:235-253 (2007)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/dao01823

Phocid seals, seal lice and heartworms: a terrestrial host–parasite system conveyed to the marine environment

Sonja Leidenberger1,*, Karin Harding2, Tero Härkönen1

1Swedish Museum of Natural History, Box 50007, 10405 Stockholm, Sweden
2Department of Marine Ecology, Göteborg University, Box 461, 40530 Göteborg, Sweden

ABSTRACT: Adaptation of pinnipeds to the marine habitat imposed parallel evolutions in their parasites. Ancestral pinnipeds must have harboured sucking lice, which were ancestors of the seal louse Echinophthirius horridus. The seal louse is one of the few insects that successfully adjusted to the marine environment. Adaptations such as keeping an air reservoir and the ability to hold on to and move on the host were necessary, as well as an adjustment of their life cycle to fit the diving habits of their host. E. horridus are confined to the Northern Hemisphere and have been reported from 9 species of northern phocids belonging to 4 genera, including land-locked seal species. The transmission from seal to seal is only possible when animals are hauled-out on land or ice. Lice are rarely found on healthy adult seals, but frequently on weak and young animals. The seal louse is suggested to play an important role as an intermediate host transmitting the heartworm Acanthocheilonema spirocauda among seals. However, the evidence is restricted to a single study where the first 3 larval stages of the heartworm were shown to develop in the louse. The fourth-stage larvae develop in the blood system of seals and eventually transform into the adult stage that matures in the heart. Since all other studies failed to confirm the presence of heartworm larvae in seal lice, other unknown intermediate hosts could be involved in the transmission of the heartworm. Transplacental transmission of microfilariae in seals has been suggested as an additional possibility, but is not likely to be important since the occurrence of heartworms in adult seals is very rare compared with juveniles. Furthermore, there are no findings of the first 3 larval stages in seals. This review shows that the heartworm infects nearly the same species of seals as the seal louse, except for the grey seal Halichoerus grypus, where the heartworm is absent. Prevalence and intensity of infection differ among regions in the Northern Hemisphere. As for seal lice, heartworms mainly infect immature seals, and after infection the prevalence seems to decrease with increasing age of the host.


KEY WORDS: Acanthocheilonema spirocauda · Heartworm · Echinophthirius horridus · Seal louse · Intermediate host · Life cycle · Adaptation


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Cite this article as: Leidenberger S, Harding K, Härkönen T (2007) Phocid seals, seal lice and heartworms: a terrestrial host–parasite system conveyed to the marine environment. Dis Aquat Org 77:235-253. https://doi.org/10.3354/dao01823

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