- A virus found in dolphins that is similar to measles can help scientists better understand the spread of disease in humans.
- Studying how dolphins regulate their blood sugar levels may assist in treating human diabetes.
- Dolphins’ sensitivity to marine toxins offers a valuable tool for assessing ocean health.
Dolphins, one of the most intelligent ocean-dwelling animals, are rightfully a favorite amongst children and adults alike. However, it’s unknown to many that outside of their entertaining performances and sheer beauty, dolphins play a large role in helping us understand disease and maintain public health.
Due to their popularity, the dramatic increase in beached dolphins observed in 2013 brought significant public concern. Researchers eventually attributed this phenomenon to an epidemic of cetacean morbillivirus, a virus that comes from the same family as measles.
Just like measles infections in humans, morbillivirus in dolphins can be passed through direct contact or through the respiratory tract. Moreover, the spread of the contagion is compounded by the tight-knit social behavior of the species, which is also the case with measles outbreaks in humans. Once organisms are infected with either morbillivirus or measles, they then become immune to the disease if they survive.
One significant difference still exists: dolphins do not go to the hospital when they are sick.
“They don’t have the ability to know they’re sick or to have public health that says you have to stay at home,” said Dr. Deborah Fauquier, Veterinary Medical Officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Unlike humans, dolphins can’t call in sick to work and isolate themselves until they recover from an illness. However, Dr. Fauquier explains the spread of the virus eventually slows down because when dolphins are sick, they interact less, decreasing the opportunity for others to get infected.
Nevertheless, the similarities between the two viruses still allow researchers to obtain valuable information about the natural cycle of measles in order to improve public health. By being able to observe a similar virus in nature, scientists can evaluate the conditions in which diseases thrive and implement changes to the way humans contain the spread of disease.
This isn’t the only case where studies in dolphins provided information to help us better understand human health conditions.
In 2010, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, discovered something amazing: after a dolphin’s caloric intake was reduced, its blood contained higher levels of glucose, resembling the blood chemistry of a person with diabetes. However, it returned to that of a healthy individual after eating. This suggests that dolphins may have a mechanism that can turn diabetes “on or off,” which allows them to maintain their blood sugar levels.
One of the researchers, Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson, said in a radio interview, “If we could find that switch and control it in humans, it could potentially control the precursor for Type 2 diabetes.” At the same time, research in the field remains preemptive and more must be done before understanding how dolphins can assist with the treatment of human diabetes.
Assessing Ocean Health
In addition to helping us better understand several human health issues, studying dolphins can provide other important insights. For example, research involving dolphins can help identify problems present in the ocean or sea life.
“Dolphins can show what’s wrong with the environment sooner than our shellfish or other testing can during a biotoxin bloom,” Dr. Fauquier said. Toxins found in infected fish, such as domoic acid, can be very harmful to humans if consumed, but because dolphins and humans eat some of the same seafood, scientists use the dolphins’ detection abilities to identify ocean diseases before they reach your dinner plate.
The health of the ocean has global impacts, so closely observing dolphins to better understand what‘s going on in the ocean benefits the public.
Advancements like these prove that dolphins are not only entertaining and beautiful animals. They also play an integral role in advancing global health, from tracking the spread of disease to maintaining the purity of marine environments.
Deborah Fauquier, D.V.M, MPVM, Ph.D., is a Veterinary Medical Officer in the Office of Protected Resources at the National Marine Fisheries Service. She has over 20 years’ experience working with live and stranded marine animals. She received her veterinary and master’s degrees from the University of California-Davis and she received her Ph.D. degree in biological oceanography from the University of California-Santa Cruz. Her research interests include investigating the impacts of disease and environmental changes on marine organisms.
- Morris, Sinead E, et al. “Partially observed epidemics in wildlife hosts: modeling an outbreak of dolphin morbillivirus in the northwestern Atlantic, June 2013-2014.” Journal of the Royal Society, Interface vol. 12,112 (2015): 20150676. doi:10.1098/rsif.2015.0676
- Bossart, G. D. “Marine Mammals as Sentinel Species for Oceans and Human Health.” Veterinary Pathology, vol. 48, no. 3, May 2011, pp. 676–690, doi:10.1177/0300985810388525.
- Venn-Watson, Stephanie, and Hendrick Nollens. “Scientists Study Dolphins as Model of Human Health.” Interview by Ira Flatow. Talk of the Nation, NPR, 19 Feb. 2010, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123892172
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This article was written by Mercedes Pierce. Mercedes and the cSw student editing team would like to thank Elizabeth Doughman for serving as a mentor on this story. Doughman is the past editor-in-chief for ALN Magazine, a previous publication by Laboratory Equipment.
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