Seals And Swine Flu: Marine Mammals Show Signs Of H1N1; How Did Seals Get The Virus?

By Philip Ross on May 17, 2013 4:45 PM EDT

swine flu elephant seals
Elephant seals in the Pacific are giant brutes, measuring up to 20 feet in length. (Photo: Reuters)

The H1N1 swine flu virus, first detected in people in the U.S. in April 2009, has now been found to infect elephant seals in California. This is the first time the H1N1 virus has been detected in marine mammals.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, tested 10 different species of mammals off the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California. NBC News reports that after researchers swabbed the nasal cavities of more than 900 Pacific marine mammals, they found that two northern elephant seals were infected with the H1N1 virus, and an additional 28 of them had antibodies for the virus, meaning the virus was more widespread.

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"We thought we might find influenza viruses, which have been found before in marine mammals, but we did not expect to find pandemic H1N1," Tracey Goldstein, an associate professor with the UC Davis One Health Institute and Wildlife Health Center, said in a statement.

Goldstein also said that some of the seals, which travel north every year to forage, tested negative for the virus on land in early 2010, but when they returned from the sea in the spring of 2010, they tested positive for the swine flu virus. Their finding, published in the journal Plos One, show that even marine mammals are not immune to swine flu. It is part of a larger effort to understand how viruses spread between animals and people.

According to National Geographic, elephant seals, which can reach 20 feet in length and weigh up to 8,800 pounds, were once hunted for their oil almost to the point of extinction. But, their numbers have turned around thanks to the success of conservation efforts.

How did swine flu, which killed about 18,500 people worldwide (at least that's the number of confirmed cases -- some estimates put the total number of deaths in the hundreds of thousand) back in 2009, end up in California's elephant seals?

Live Science reports that transfer directly from humans is unlikely. Exposure is believed to have occurred either through feces dumped from shipping vessels cruising through the area, or from contact with aquatic birds.

This isn't the first case of inter-species disease infection. There are a number of diseases that have hopped across species in the past. The bubonic plague, which killed some 75 million people in 14th-century Europe, North Africa and Asia, came to humans through rodents and cats. Today, there's even a parasite in our brains that was transmitted to humans from cats.

Read more from iScience Times:

Koala Chlamydia: Is The Koala Endangered Because Of The STD?

Indiana Swine Flu Cases Increase 10-Fold, Hits 113

Bird Flu Vaccine: Is China's Deadly H7N9 Virus Threat On The Decline?

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