Seeking the cause of a mysterious whale disease

Ft. Pierce, FL On June 25, scientists will meet at HARBOR BRANCH Oceanographic Institution to study and discuss a deadly heart disease affecting pygmy and dwarf sperm whale populations. The workshop will bring together human and marine mammal researchers in an effort to better understand causes of the heart defect using medical techniques normally applied to humans.

Dr. Gregory Bossart, director of the HARBOR BRANCH Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Division, who has studied both clinical marine mammal medicine and pathology and human pathology, will lead the workshop. Other experts involved will include Dr. George Hensley, a human and comparative pathologist from the University of Miami Jackson Memorial Hospital; and marine mammal researchers from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), as well as other HARBOR BRANCH experts.

The focus of the workshop will be a disease known as dilated cardiomyopathy, which appears to be the cause of death of most of a recent increase in pygmy sperm whale strandings in Florida, though the causes of the disease itself have been elusive. "We want to try to determine what's causing the cardiomyopathy because right now we only have a list of possibilities," says Dr. Bossart, who was the first, with colleagues, to describe the disease in 1985. The list of possibilities ranges from nutrient deficiency and environmental toxins to genetic mutations and infection.

From just January to March of this year there were 20 dwarf and pygmy sperm whale strandings in the southeast. Typically there are only about 12 in the region in an entire year. NMFS is deciding whether to call for a formal investigation into the cause of the increase.

Dilated cardiomyopathy involves enlargement of and subsequent weakening of part or all of the heart, and can leave whales more susceptible to environmental stresses and ultimately death. One human version of the

Contact: Mark Schrope
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution

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