ESR 33:211-220 (2017)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00772

Evaluation of morbillivirus exposure in cetaceans from the northern Gulf of Mexico 2010-2014

Deborah A. Fauquier1,*, Jenny Litz2, Susan Sanchez3, Kathleen Colegrove4, Lori H. Schwacke5, Leslie Hart5,6, Jeremiah Saliki3, Cynthia Smith7, Tracey Goldstein8, Sabrina Bowen-Stevens9, Wayne McFee5, Erin Fougeres10, Blair Mase-Guthrie2, Elizabeth Stratton9, Ruth Ewing2, Stephanie Venn-Watson7, Ruth H. Carmichael11, Connie Clemons-Chevis12, Wendy Hatchett12, Delphine Shannon12, Steve Shippee13,14, Suzanne Smith15,16, Lydia Staggs16, Mandy C. Tumlin17, Noel L. Wingers11, Teri K. Rowles1

1NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA
2NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, Miami, FL 33149, USA
3Athens Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602, USA
4Zoological Pathology Program, University of Illinois, Maywood, IL 60153, USA
5NOAA National Ocean Service, National Center for Coastal Ocean Science, Charleston, SC 29412, USA
6College of Charleston, Department of Health and Human Performance, Charleston, SC 29424, USA
7National Marine Mammal Foundation, San Diego, CA 92106, USA
8One Health Institute, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA
9NOAA Affiliate, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, Miami, FL 33149, USA
10NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Regional Office, St. Petersburg, FL 33701, USA
11Dauphin Island Sea Lab and University of South Alabama, Dauphin Island, AL 36528, USA
12Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, Gulfport, MS 39502, USA
13Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548, USA
14Marine Wildlife Response, Mary Esther, FL 32569, USA
15Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA
16GulfWorld Marine Park, Panama City Beach, FL 32413, USA
17Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Baton Rouge, LA 70358, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The potential role of morbillivirus was evaluated in the deaths of >1100 bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus and other small cetaceans that stranded from February 2010 through July 2014, during the northern Gulf of Mexico (GoM) unusual mortality event (UME). Morbillivirus analysis was carried out on 142 live or freshly dead cetaceans and results were combined with samples from 102 live, free-ranging bottlenose dolphins sampled during capture-release health assessments conducted from 2011 to 2014. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for morbillivirus showed that 9.9% (14/142) of the stranded cetaceans and 1% (1/83) of the free-ranging live dolphins were positive for dolphin morbilliviral (DMV) RNA. In contrast, previous DMV dolphin die-offs had DMV detectable by PCR in 61 to 97% of animals tested. Histologic findings consistent with morbillivirus infection, including lymphoid depletion, bronchointerstitial pneumonia, syncytial cell formation, or meningoencephalitis, were found in 6.6% (9/136) of the cetaceans that underwent histologic examinations. Serological analysis using a virus neutralization assay found that 29% (5/17) of live stranded and 23% (23/102) of live free-ranging bottlenose dolphins had titers of 64 or greater for cetacean morbillivirus, indicating prior but not necessarily recent exposure to morbillivirus. Current findings suggest that DMV infection, although present in the northern GoM, was sporadic and occurred at low levels and therefore was not the primary cause of the northern GoM UME. Confirmation of DMV infections and existing DMV titers demonstrate continued exposure to morbillivirus among northern GoM cetaceans since the first detection of this virus in the early 1990s.


KEY WORDS: Dolphin · Strandings · Tursiops truncatus · Unusual mortality event · Polymerase chain reaction


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Cite this article as: Fauquier DA, Litz J, Sanchez S, Colegrove K and others (2017) Evaluation of morbillivirus exposure in cetaceans from the northern Gulf of Mexico 2010-2014. Endang Species Res 33:211-220. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00772

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