A Correlative Approach for Assessing Health and Disease in Marine Mammals
IAAAM Archive
Kerri McArthur-Vaughan; William G. Van Bonn; Tracy A. Romano
U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program
San Diego, CA, USA


The United States Navy maintains five operational fleet Marine Mammal Systems (MMS). These quick-response units consist of pinniped and cetacean species (Tursiops truncatus and Zalophus californianus) that are deployed in oceans throughout the world. The Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP) provides the specialized training for these animals, supplies veterinary medical care, and maintains an on-going breeding program. Due to the nature of their employment, mission-readiness for Navy animals is of utmost importance. The ability to assess the health of these animals is therefore critical. As part of its continuing efforts in preventive and clinical medicine, NMMP has broadened its in-house capabilities to include clinical immunology, microbiology, molecular medicine (gene-based immunization and immunostimulatory sequences [CpG] immunotherapy) and neuroimmunology. Our objective is to coalesce and optimize the above technologies in the development of a correlative approach to marine mammal health. A preliminary study was conducted to investigate possible correlations between: 1) immune function (cytokine RT-PCR, ELISA and immunophenotyping); 2) nervous system activation (catecholamine and hormone levels); and 3) clinical status (CBCs and serum chemistries, appetite, behavioral observations) for each animal. In this preliminary study, three bottlenose dolphins with documented clinical illness were compared with three healthy control dolphins. Additional assays are currently being developed and validated as additional tools to assess marine mammal health. This multi-disciplinary approach has application not only for marine mammals kept under human care, but for stranded and wild populations of marine mammals as well.

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Kerrie McArthur-Vaughan