Seeking the cause of a mysterious whale disease

June 25, 2003

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 same disease is responsible for the sudden death of many young athletes, leading to a surge in research to determine causes and ways to diagnose the defect in its early stages. Scientists at the workshop hope to apply that knowledge to understanding the whale condition. "This is another way of borrowing from humans and applying to marine mammals," says Dr. Bossart, who is also studying a disease in manatees related to the virus that causes human cervical cancer.

The workshop will be held in the HARBOR BRANCH necropsy lab--the only one of its kind on the east coast of Florida. The facility is the marine mammal version of a human autopsy lab, but includes special equipment for examining large mammals. At the facility, the workshop group will study at least 12 hearts collected from recent fatal pygmy sperm whale strandings to develop a systematic protocol for dissecting the whale hearts, which Dr. Bossart hopes will reveal the cause of the disease.

With an increasing rate of emerging diseases in whales and other marine mammals, researchers are rallying to come up with cures as well as new tools for monitoring and diagnosing sick animals. The Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Division at HARBOR BRANCH recently released the new "Protect Florida Whales" license plate to help fund this important research. Proceeds from the sale of the new plate will be used to support HARBOR BRANCH's efforts to study and protect more than a dozen species of whales that can be found in Florida's coastal waters. This will include work now underway to build the world's first marine mammal teaching hospital and rehabilitation center on HARBOR BRANCH's campus.
For more information about HARBOR BRANCH, or to sign up for our press release mailing list, please visit:

To reserve a space or to request b-roll or photos from the workshop, please contact Mark Schrope at 772-216-0390 or Photos from pygmy whale strandings are also available.

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution

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