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Fresh Water Skin Disease in Dolphins

Fresh Water Skin Disease in Dolphins: A Case Definition Based on Pathology and Environmental Factors in Australia
  • Pathology
  • Climate change


A distinct ulcerative dermatitis known as “freshwater skin disease” is an emerging clinical and pathological presentation in coastal cetaceans worldwide. In Australia, two remarkably similar mortality events enabled the creation of a case definition based on pathology and environmental factors. The first affected a community of endemic Tursiops australis in the Gippsland Lakes, Victoria, while the second occurred among T. aduncus resident in the Swan-Canning River system, Western Australia. The common features of both events were (1) an abrupt and marked decrease in salinity (from> 30ppt to< 5ppt) due to rainfall in the catchments, with hypo-salinity persisting weeks to months, and (2) dermatitis characterized grossly by patchy skin pallor that progressed to variable circular or targetoid, often raised, and centrally ulcerated lesions covering up to 70% of the body surface. The affected skin was often colonized by a variety of fungal, bacterial and algal species that imparted variable yellow, green or orange discoloration. Histologic lesions consisted of epidermal hydropic change leading to vesiculation and erosion; alternately, or in addition, the formation of intraepithelial pustules resulting in ulceration and hypodermal necrosis. Thus, the environmental factors and characteristic pathologic lesions, are necessary components of the case definition for freshwater skin disease.

Duignan, P.J., Stephens, N.S. & Robb, K., 2020. Fresh water skin disease in dolphins: a case definition based on pathology and environmental factors in Australia. Sci Rep 10, 21979.

climate change
Pádraig Duignan

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