Wildlife

Arctic belugas infected by kitty litter disease

  • Mar 25, 2014
  • 419 words
  • 2 minutes
Expand Image
Advertisement

Arctic beluga whales in western Canada are facing a parasitic infection from what scientists are calling the “kitty litter” disease.

A University of British Columbia team of scientists found the cat parasite toxoplasma gondii is infecting Arctic belugas. While the parasite is ineffective in extremely cold environments, warmer Arctic temperatures and the thawing of the sea allows the disease to travel from land to water.

Some scientists worry the infection of beluga whales isn’t just an isolated event, but part of the growing concerns about how global warming is changing the Arctic.

Michael Grigg, a member of the research team and an adjunct professor at UBC, says that a recent Arctic ice thaw melted the “eco-barrier” between lower latitudes and the Arctic, allowing pathogens to find new homes in unsuspecting species. “Toxoplasma exists in the north,” he says. “It’s in polar bears, Arctic foxes and caribou.”

Expand Image
(Photo: Creative Commons)

The UBC team also found that in 2012, a strain from the parasite killed 406 grey seals in the North Atlantic.

True to its name, the “kitty litter” disease comes from infected cat feces particles found in soil. It can only be killed with extreme heat or extreme cold. “They are really resilient structures, so they can remain infectious for a long period of time,” Grigg says.

The UBC team’s findings are based on screening specimens from 2002 to 2013. The first occurrence of the parasite in belugas was discovered in a specimen from 2006. At this point, approximately 14 per cent of the western Arctic beluga population is believed to asymptomatically carry the parasite.

With the discovery of the infected Beluga whales, there are concerns about the Inuit community who rely on belugas as a source of their meat, culture and folklore. “The Inuits’ traditional processing and cooking methods should be enough to kill toxoplasma,” Grigg says, but he warns that “vulnerable populations like pregnant women need to be extra vigilant around handling and consuming whale meat.”

While it’s estimated that up to one-third of people worldwide are carriers of toxoplasma gondii, the kitty litter disease is not a great concern for people who don’t have major health issues. Grigg says that people infected with the parasite often have symptoms similar to the flu. “They think it’s a cold — they have a little bit of swelling of their lymph nodes and then it resolves.” However, he adds that once humans come into contact with the parasite, they are carriers of the infection for life.

Advertisement

Related Content

Arctic Frontiers conference 2019

Environment

Five key takeaways from the Arctic Frontiers conference

The uncertainty and change that's currently disrupting the region dominated the annual meeting's agenda

  • 2651 words
  • 11 minutes
illegal wildlife trade, elephant foot, ivory, biodiversity

Wildlife

The illegal wildlife trade is a biodiversity apocalypse

An estimated annual $175-billion business, the illegal trade in wildlife is the world’s fourth-largest criminal enterprise. It stands to radically alter the animal kingdom.

  • 3405 words
  • 14 minutes
A grizzly bear lies dead on the side of the road

Wildlife

Animal crossing: Reconnecting North America’s most important wildlife corridor

This past summer an ambitious wildlife under/overpass system broke ground in B.C. on a deadly stretch of highway just west of the Alberta border. Here’s how it happened.

  • 3625 words
  • 15 minutes

Wildlife

Beluga whistles and clicks could be silenced by an increasingly noisy Arctic Ocean

Sound is an integral part of a beluga’s life, so the quality of the underwater acoustic environment is very important for the health and survival of belugas

  • 940 words
  • 4 minutes