A parasite that normally infects cats has been found in Arctic beluga whales, and scientists are scratching their heads over how it got there. Experts fear that climate change could be putting marine mammals, as well as the indigenous Inuit who eat their meat, at risk of contracting the potentially deadly parasite, according to the BBC.
Toxoplasma gondii, or T. gondii, is a parasitic protozoan that reproduces in the intestines of cats. It can infect virtually all warm-blooded animals and is one of the most common parasites found in humans. While most people who have the parasite don’t exhibit any symptoms, in some cases T. gondii can cause brain disease, blindness and even miscarriage. Pregnant women are often advised to avoid kitty litter boxes.
"This common parasite in the lower 48 [U.S. states] is now emerging in the Arctic, and we found it for the first time in a population of western Arctic beluga," Michael Grigg, a molecular parasitologist with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said on Thursday during the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. "This is a parasite that is secreted by cats, so what is it doing in the Arctic and why now is it in the beluga? That is what we are starting to investigate: How did it get there?"
According to AFP, the belugas discovered to be carrying the T. gondii parasite suffered only mild inflammation from the infection. But researchers are concerned that the parasite could cause deadly infections in some of the whales.
Researchers say the parasite’s presence in the Arctic is a sign of how the region's warming climate is allowing pathogens to move more freely through the environment. With increasingly warmer temperatures in the Arctic, the parasite can survive longer and has a better chance of finding an animal host before dying.
“Ice is a significant ecological barrier and it influences the way in which pathogens can be transmitted in nature and your risk of exposure,” Grigg told the BBC. “With the changes ongoing in the Arctic, ... we’re getting new pathogens emerging to cause diseases in the region that haven’t been there before.”
Scientists speculate that the proliferation of domestic cats in the Arctic brought the pathogen to the region. Cat feces could have gotten into the waterways and washed into the ocean, where the parasites’ eggs could end up in the beluga whales’ systems.
According to Science World Report, T. gondii was previously noted in other marine mammals, including sea otters, porpoises, harbor seals and killer whales. Discovering the parasite in belugas is especially troubling because the native Inuit people will often eat beluga whale meat raw or undercooked, putting them at risk of contracting the parasite.
"Belugas are not only an integral part of Inuit culture and folklore but also a major staple of the traditional diet,” Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist at the University of British Columbia, said in a statement. “Hunters and community members are very concerned about food safety and security.”
And it’s not just Arctic belugas that are facing the threat of parasitic diseases. According to National Geographic, another new species of parasite, Sarcocystis pinnipedi, is spreading across the south and infecting gray seals. One island has seen a 20 percent drop in its population of gray seals, according to researchers from the American Association of the Advancement of Science.