Marine Mammals

Epidemiology, Population Health & Pathology

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Principal Investigator

Adam Schaefer, M.P.H.


Protect Wild Dolphins plate This research is funded in part by proceeds from Florida's Protect Wild Dolphins specialty license plate.


Closing the Loop between Wildlife, Environmental and Human Health

The primary focus of Harbor Branch population health and epidemiology research is the interplay of marine mammal, human, and environmental health, as embodied in the One Health concept.  The resulting research on marine mammal health, infectious disease and environmental epidemiology has illustrated the role of marine species as sentinel organisms for human and ecosystem health. Bolstered with staff expertise in epidemiology study design, statistical analysis and data management in both wildlife and human research, the program recently produced one of pioneering studies connecting animal and human health, which demonstrated elevated mercury concentrations in dolphins and humans who consume fish from Florida’s Indian River Lagoon.

Current Projects

Dolphin Health and Environmental Risk Assessment (HERA)
Data from the HERA project , established in 2003, provided the foundation for epidemiology research at Harbor Branch. Epidemiology continues to play a significant role in the execution and analysis of this multidisciplinary project including analysis of the all HERA data, study design, and analysis and integration of multiple streams of research data. This effort is supported by sales of Protect Wild Dolphins Florida specialty license plates.

Antibiotic Resistance
This work involves surveillance and retrospective analysis of data on the prevalence and patterns of antibiotic-resistant organisms in Indian River Lagoon bottlenose dolphins combined with environmental data to assess correlations with natural and anthropogenic stressors using both classical microbiology and emerging molecular methodology. 

Mercury and Emerging ContaminantsHg
Ongoing research on mercury concentrations in bottlenose dolphins has led to multiple research questions including the physiologic effects of chronic exposure, the movement of mercury in the food web and associated risks for local human populations. The data and analysis will aid understanding of disease susceptibility and virulence of infectious and chronic disease. 

Zoonotic Diseases
Multiple epidemiological studies have established the prevalence of infectious diseases with zoonotic potential. The presence of these diseases in dolphins and in the environment represents a potential risk to coastal human populations. In order to understand the potential public health relevance, multiple epidemiological studies are ongoing. Continued surveillance in conjunction with environmental and human disease monitoring will provide valuable insight. 

Lobomycosis is a chronic fungal disease of the skin that has been document in humans and dolphins, but the causative agent, Lacazia loboi, has never been cultured. The lack of in vitro culture results in diagnosis delays and the inability to determine an effective treatment or to identify environmental reservoirs for disease. Harbor Branch research has demonstrated a high prevalence of the disease in the southern Indian River Lagoon dolphin population, which, along with the potential for human health impact, drives epidemiology research. Culture attempts and molecular characterization have the potential to improve the understanding of this unique pathogen and its presence in the environment

Pathophysiology of Stress
Pathophysiology of Stress in Wild and Managed-Care Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) is a study to characterize the pathophysiology of stress in wild and managed-care bottlenose dolphins and to establish relationships between markers of the stress response in cetaceans and immune function, dependent hormonal endpoints, hematology and serum chemistry parameters, biomarkers of stress, inflammation and metabolism and health status. This study is supported by the Office of Naval Research.

Population Health of Wild and Rehabilitated African Penguins Penguin sampling
After a steady decline in seabird populations worldwide, a first-of-its-kind wild penguin health assessment in South Africa was started by SANCCOB and multiple research partners to understand the overall health and disease prevalence in the  local populations. Surveillance of these birds includes the collection of blood and guano samples, ecto-parasites and general metromorphic values from wild and rehabilitated penguins. The Harbor Branch Epidemiology program collaborates to complete multiple ongoing objectives in order to understand health and infectious diseases in this endangered marine bird.