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Two dolphins

Brain Parasites in South African Dolphins

Cranial crassicaudiasis in two coastal dolphin species from South Africa is predominantly a disease of immature individuals
  • Parasites


Crassicauda spp. (Nematoda) infest the cranial sinuses of several odontocetes, causing diagnostic trabecular osteolytic lesions. We examined skulls of 77 Indian Ocean humpback dolphins Sousa plumbea and 69 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins Tursiops aduncus, caught in bather-protecting nets off KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) from 1970-2017, and skulls of 6 S. plumbea stranded along the southern Cape coast in South Africa from 1963-2002. Prevalence of cranial crassicaudiasis was evaluated according to sex and cranial maturity. Overall, prevalence in S. plumbea and T. aduncus taken off KZN was 13 and 31.9%, respectively. Parasitosis variably affected 1 or more cranial bones (frontal, pterygoid, maxillary and sphenoid). No significant difference was found by gender for either species, allowing sexes to be pooled. However, there was a significant difference in lesion prevalence by age, with immature T. aduncus 4.6 times more likely affected than adults, while for S. plumbea, the difference was 6.5-fold. As severe osteolytic lesions are unlikely to heal without trace, we propose that infection is more likely to have a fatal outcome for immature dolphins, possibly because of incomplete bone development, lower immune competence in clearing parasites or an over-exuberant inflammatory response in concert with parasitic enzymatic erosion. Cranial osteolysis was not observed in mature males (18 S. plumbea, 21 T. aduncus), suggesting potential cohort-linked immune-mediated resistance to infestation. Crassicauda spp. may play a role in the natural mortality of S. plumbea and T. aduncus, but the pathogenesis and population level impact remain unknown.

Van Bressem, M. F., Duignan, P., Raga, J. A., Van Waerebeek, K., Fraija-Fernández, N., & Plön, S. (2020). Cranial crassicaudiasis in two coastal dolphin species from South Africa is predominantly a disease of immature individuals. Diseases of aquatic organisms, 139, 93–102.

Pádraig Duignan

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