The domoic acid produced by marine algae has been found to have long-term effects on California sealions’ memory and navigation. © Carrie Merrell/iStock
A new study of California sealions poisoned by a deadly natural neurotoxin suggests that algal blooms might be a major cause of marine mammal strandings.
Exposure to high levels of domoic acid, produced by marine algae, is well known to cause seizures and death in marine mammals, as well as in humans who have ingested contaminated seafood.
Behavioural experiments led by Peter Cook of Emory University in Georgia, USA, have now shown that sealions that survive the initial acute illness are left with impaired memory and foraging abilities.
Scans revealed lesions in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for spatial memory and navigation.
“The numbers of exposed sealions becoming stranded vary from year to year, but have been increasing over the past two decades,” Cook told BBC Wildlife.
“The blooms producing domoic acid are increasing in size, frequency and duration, likely due to warming oceans and direct human impacts such as agricultural run-off,” he added. “More and more species may be exposed to these toxins at harmful levels in the coming years.”
“It is really disturbing,” said Kathi Lefebvre of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “There is no reason to think that whale brains would not be impacted in a similar way to the sealions’ brains.”
Lefebvre added that a link between domoic acid and whale strandings has not been proven, largely due to the difficulty of obtaining fresh tissue samples for analysis. And, according to Cook, we currently have no way of measuring behavioural symptoms in wild cetaceans.
“We do see the toxin in whales that die of many causes such as starvation and ship strikes, and we think that domoic acid poisoning may impact an animal’s ability to forage and evade dangers,” Lefebvre added. “Further investigation is needed to confirm it, but Cook’s findings support this theory.”
Did you know?
- Three people died after eating shellfish contaminated with domoic acid on Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1987.
- Domoic acid may also have caused the “crazed” seabird behaviour in California in 1961 that is believed to have inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Read more wildlife news stories in BBC Wildlife Magazine