Royal Society Publishing

Epidermal diseases in bottlenose dolphins: impacts of natural and anthropogenic factors

B. Wilson, H. Arnold, G. Bearzi, C. M. Fortuna, R. Gaspar, S. Ingram, C. Liret, S. Pribanic, A. J. Read, V. Ridoux, K. Schneider, K. W. Urian, R. S. Wells, C. Wood, P. M. Thompson, P. S. Hammond


Experimental studies have highlighted the potential influence of contaminants on marine mammal immune function and anthropogenic contaminants are commonly believed to influence the development of diseases observed in the wild. However, estimates of the impact of contaminants on wild populations are constrained by uncertainty over natural variation in disease patterns under different environmental conditions. We used photographic techniques to compare levels of epidermal disease in ten coastal populations of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) exposed to a wide range of natural and anthropogenic conditions. Epidermal lesions were common in all populations (affecting > 60% of individuals), but both the prevalence and severity of 15 lesion categories varied between populations. No relationships were found between epidermal disease and contaminant levels across the four populations for which toxicological data were available. In contrast, there were highly significant linear relationships with oceanographic variables. In particular, populations from areas of low water temperature and low salinity exhibited higher lesion prevalence and severity. Such conditions may impact on epidermal integrity or produce more general physiological stress, potentially making animals more vulnerable to natural infections or anthropogenic factors. These results show that variations in natural environmental factors must be accounted for when investigating the importance of anthropogenic impacts on disease in wild marine mammals.