Climate change, maternal care & parasitic infection all connected in SA fur seals

Morris Animal Foundation

IMAGE: On Chile's Guafo Island, all South American fur seal pups show some degree of hookworm infection. Credit: Dr. Mauricio Seguel, University of Georgia

IMAGE: On Chile’s Guafo Island, all South American fur seal pups show some degree of hookworm infection. Credit: Dr. Mauricio Seguel, University of Georgia

South American fur seal pups with high levels of hookworm infection spend more time in the water, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, report Morris Animal Foundation-funded researchers at the University of Georgia.

The team hypothesized the higher infection rates are due to a climate change chain reaction that forces pups’ mothers to devote more time to searching for food, rather than providing the pups maternal care that can thwart parasites. The team recently published their study in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

“This was a surprising finding, but it helps us understand the full relationship these parasites have with their hosts, directly and indirectly,” said Dr. Mauricio Seguel, a veterinary researcher at the University of Georgia. “More importantly, though, studies like this answer smaller parts of a bigger question: How much do our activities as humans impact animals?”

Hookworm infection is a significant health risk in South American fur seal populations. A separate Morris Animal Foundation-funded study, led by Dr. Seguel, determined more than 20 percent of fur seal pups die from parasitic infections every year.

“It is important to understand these complex associations between animal behavior and disease that can reveal effects of climate change on ocean health” said Dr. Janet Patterson-Kane, Morris Animal Foundation Chief Scientific Officer. “This study shows pups with higher parasite loads and more time in the water as two outcomes of decreased maternal care, but there is more to the story and we are dedicated to discovering what that is.”

Dr. Sequel’s team studied pups at a fur seal colony on Guafo Island in southwestern Chile, where all pups show some degree of hookworm infection. For four months, researchers captured pups that were 1 to 2 days old and marked them for tracking. The team observed each pup’s behavior for at least eight weeks, recording the number of times and in what ways the pups engaged in water activities.

The researchers also took regular blood and fecal samples to measure the level of hookworm infection in each animal. They discovered that pups with higher parasite burdens were far more active in the water than pups with lower levels; playing and swimming, rather than resting by or avoiding it.

Further analysis revealed the animals with higher infection rates spent less time with their mothers. The team believes this could be because warmer ocean temperatures make fish scarcer. Younger, less experienced females then must spend more time searching for food and less time with their offspring. Those pups, in turn, aren’t able to feed from their mothers and spend more time in the water; and have weaker immune systems that are less able to clear the parasites.

It is unknown what the implications are for the long-term survival and reproductive success of fur seal populations, given increasing ocean temperatures, higher parasite load, and the extended periods of time mothers spend away from their pups as finding food becomes more challenging. Dr. Seguel’s work, with funding from Morris Animal Foundation, is critical to a better understanding of these populations and their ongoing health.

In future studies, Dr. Seguel and his team hope to learn more about fur seal pup swimming behavior and how less or more time in the water positively or negatively impacts pup health.

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About Morris Animal Foundation

Morris Animal Foundation’s mission is to bridge science and resources to advance the health of animals. Founded by a veterinarian in 1948, we fund and conduct critical health studies for the benefit of all animals. Learn more at morrisanimalfoundation.org.

From EurekAlert!

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25 thoughts on “Climate change, maternal care & parasitic infection all connected in SA fur seals

  1. Each time I read a foolish intro I bet with myself “Another BS from EurekAlert! !” and then I click on “Read more” and go to the bottom.

    BINGO !

    Too easy to win ! 🙂

  2. “…The team hypothesized the higher infection rates are due to a climate change chain reaction that forces pups’ mothers to devote more time to searching for food, rather than providing the pups maternal care that can thwart parasites…”

    “…The team believes this could be because warmer ocean temperatures make fish scarcer…”

    All this from a two month study on one island…:^)

  3. >>The team hypothesized the higher infection rates are due to a climate change chain reaction<>“More importantly, though, studies like this answer smaller parts of a bigger question: How much do our activities as humans impact animals?”<>For four months, researchers captured pups that were 1 to 2 days old and marked them for tracking<>Further analysis revealed the animals with higher infection rates spent less time with their mothers. The team believes this could be because warmer ocean temperatures make fish scarcer.<>Younger, less experienced females then must spend more time searching for food and less time with their offspring. Those pups, in turn, aren’t able to feed from their mothers and spend more time in the water; and have weaker immune systems that are less able to clear the parasites.<>It is unknown what the implications are for the long-term survival and reproductive success of fur seal populations, given increasing ocean temperatures, higher parasite load, and the extended periods of time mothers spend away from their pups as finding food becomes more challenging.<>In future studies,<<
    Oh please!! No more!

    There…reviewed!
    Next..

    • Once again, they don’t actually document the relationship. They just assume that it must be there.
      1) Did they actually measure a change in ocean temperatures in this area? No.
      2) Did they measure a change in the number of fish in the oceans of this area? No.

      At least climate “scientists” take time to actually build models to give them the answers they want.
      These guys just assume the answers they want.

  4. I see that the team ‘hypothesised’ that the water was warmer and that pup’s mothers spent more time looking for food.

    Why did they not measure this?

    Or perhaps they did, found that it was not true, and decided to mention it as a hypothesis rather than present the data showing it to be false…?

  5. This is another case where the secondary report being quoted seriously misrepresents the actual research paper. The only conclusion drawn by the researchers is that there is a link between level of hookworm burden in fur seal pups and their aquatic activity. There is no mention of climate change: would this be the Morris Foundation’s addition?

    • To be fair there is another paper with partially the same authors that indicates that hookworm infection increases with higher water temperatures:

      https://elifesciences.org/articles/38432

      However this is largely based on data from a single year (2014) and the data in the paper does not indicate any upward trend in SST at Guafo island. It should also be noted that it is well known that high SST (Nino conditions) are very detrimental to most aquatic animals on the west coast of South America and can cause mass die-offs of birds and mammals.

  6. I read the manuscript and the methods were good and the results are interesting. However, no link to “climate change” was presented by data or in the opinion of the authors. The spurious and unsupported link to parasites and climate change was made by Dr. Janet Patterson-Kane, Morris Animal Foundation Chief Scientific Officer.

    • Bingo!
      As other above also indicated, though perhaps not so spot on.

      “The team hypothesized the higher infection rates are due to a climate change chain reaction …
      “This was a surprising finding,”

      That is not a finding, that is pure unsupported opinion.

  7. “The researchers also took regular blood and fecal samples to measure the level of hookworm infection in each animal.”

    Of course, regular handling by researchers has no relevance to the problem. Penguins and frogs anyone?

    • Perceptive – the demise of isolated frog populations was caused by herpetologists infecting them with chytridiomycosis. Nothing like a Grad student hauling in dirty lab gear and then grab every frog in every pond within walking distance to cause mass death. On a global scale. It had nothing to do with the Ozone hole or CO2. You should see the strained explanation at the National Zoo’s Amazon exhibit.

  8. When did this research take place? Could this have been El Nino related? Let’s see …. “14 December 2016 and 4 March 2017”. That would be a time when left over warm water from the super El Nino could have been influencing this area.

    Seems like lots of ENSO related changes get blamed on climate change.

  9. One location is insufficient to form any view from, as any competent scientist would agree, it may well raise questions but without comparison with other breeding areas no specific conclusions can be drawn.

    It is well documented that animal parasites have geographic hotspots for a variety of ecological reasons.

    Equally I would expect to see both sea temperature changes graphed alongside any recorded changes in fish populations – not a mere hypothesis that both “might” be a cause.

    It is the same type of sloppy science that led Edinburgh university researchers to claim last year that Shags had changed their diet because sand eels had declined because of “climate change”. To do so they had to ignore 2 in-depth studies by both UK and Scottish parliaments which demonstrated that Over – Fishing by Scandinavian fishermen was the sole cause of declining sand eel numbers.

    There seems to be no grant money available for facts where “climate change” is concerned.

  10. This is an absolutely awful study. The “Key” finding is not a finding at all — quoting the study-as-printed:

    “This (highly infected pups spending more time swimming) was probably related to lower maternal attendance in heavily parasitized pups, leaving these pups more time to perform water activities.”

    The study contains no measure of ‘maternal attendance’. It finds treating the pups with anti-parasitical medication did not change their behavior patterns — they still swam more — which should have invalidated their chief finding.

    Authors inject their “guess” as a finding without and contrary to evidence.

    • The study was fine. The problem is Dr. Janet Patterson-Kane, Morris Animal Foundation Chief Scientific Officer.

  11. Before catastrophic global warming there were no epidemics. Ever.

    Is the rise of measles in the U.S. also due to warming?

  12. Reality: those seal pups get hookworm from their mother’s colostrum in their 1st week of life – not from being in the water or from water intake. And by the 1st month seal milk in the mother doesn’t have hookworms to transmit.

    And in about 80% of the pups their intestines start to shed their internal adult hookworms at around 2 weeks old, so that (in these pups) 100% of the hookworms are gone by when pup is as young as 4 weeks old going on up to 9 weeks old.

    It is the level (burden) of hookworms that is detrimental to the seal pup. On average 1/3 of them are afflicted by a heavy burden with potential contribution to fatal consequences & on average 2/3 of seal pups have a low burden of hookworms.

    There are statistical averages of different seal colony’s pup mortality & hookworms are only 1 contributing cause. And the hookworm’s life cycle using seals as intermediary hosts is not an all year round risk – it is only a factor when the the pups come along & the pups are vulnerable to transmission.

  13. “…higher infection rates…”

    Higher than what? In a two month study you can’t tell me that you even established there was an increase in infection rates! As far as we can tell from the data, fur seal pups have always had some level of hookworm infestation!

    • In a two month study you can’t tell me that you even established there was an increase in infection rates!

      – Perhaps they compared a control group with an out-of-control group.

  14. I have just returned from a trip to Florida where I witnessed a phenomenon that I have not seen before. Millions of flies are swarming joined by their arses in what I can only conclude is a sexual frenzy brought about by climate change. Certainly, no flies in the UK exhibit this behaviour, so it must be due to warmer temperatures. It seems I have enough evidence to warrant a study, and I am prepared to live in Florida for 5-10 years to research this phenomenon. All I need is a place to live, a car, all living expenses and I’m there. Yes, it’s a sacrifice, but I am prepared to give up my time in the pursuit of truth and knowledge.
    Which way to the grant office?

  15. Every scientific paper has to mention its relevance to global warming. $$ In the 1970’s every paper had to mention its relevance to cancer (Nixon’s war on cancer and $$), then in the 80 and 90’s it was AIDS in every publication possible. I am very surprised they didn’t work in diversity, although I did not read the paper itself.
    Simple, unadulterated prostitution from our objective, fact driven scientific establishment, whose denizens live from grant to grant.

    • Nothing new. Before 1991 mentioning Lenin, preferably by citing him in some way at least remotely related to your subject was de rigeur in Soviet scholarly papers. There were people who made a living by digging up Lenin citations applicable to any and all subjects.

      I wonder if there are similar specialists who for a consideration can link any research subject to “climate change”?

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