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The prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii in polar bears and their marine mammal prey: evidence for a marine transmission pathway?

Abstract

Little is known about the prevalence of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii in the arctic marine food chain of Svalbard, Norway. In this study, plasma samples were analyzed for T. gondii antibodies using a direct agglutination test. Antibody prevalence was 45.6% among polar bears (Ursus maritimus), 18.7% among ringed seals (Pusa hispida) and 66.7% among adult bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) from Svalbard, but no sign of antibodies were found in bearded seal pups, harbour seals (Phoca vitulina), white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) or narwhals (Monodon monoceros) from the same area. Prevalence was significantly higher in male polar bears (52.3%) compared with females (39.3%), likely due to dietary differences between the sexes. Compared to an earlier study, T. gondii prevalence in polar bears has doubled in the past decade. Consistently, an earlier study on ringed seals did not detect T. gondii. The high recent prevalence in polar bears, ringed seals and bearded seals could be caused by an increase in the number or survivorship of oocysts being transported via the North Atlantic Current to Svalbard from southern latitudes. Warmer water temperatures have led to influxes of temperate marine invertebrate filter-feeders that could be vectors for oocysts and warmer water is also likely to favour higher survivorship of oocycts. However, a more diverse than normal array of migratory birds in the Archipelago recently, as well as a marked increase in cruise-ship and other human traffic are also potential sources of T. gondii.

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Acknowledgments

This study was funded by the Norwegian Polar Institute and performed in collaboration with the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science. The authors thank Heli Routti and Hans Wolkers for providing valuable data, Magnus Andersen and Bjørn Krafft for their help with field collections and the former for constructive comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jon Aars.

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Jensen, S.K., Aars, J., Lydersen, C. et al. The prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii in polar bears and their marine mammal prey: evidence for a marine transmission pathway?. Polar Biol 33, 599–606 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-009-0735-x

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-009-0735-x

Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Disease
  • Arctic