Human Intervention Leads to Viruses Decimating Mammal Populations in the Arctic 


Esha Brar

          Through a recent study, many scientists have started to become extremely concerned with the stability of the sea otters and seal populations in the Pacific Ocean, due to a virus that scientists believe is due to the recent thawing of ice in the Arctic. Many scientists are speculating that due to the climate change of thawing the ice, that disease has started to spread more rapidly among the population of mammals, but has also spread among a vast area at an extremely rapid pace. This is not only raising issues about the dangers of climate change, but also poses many serious questions about to preserve concentrated populations that are spreading disease due to climate change, and how to prevent the extremely rapid pace. 

            Tracy Goldstein, who is a biologist at the University of California was very intrigued with this topic when she first noticed European harbor seals, as well as Pacific ocean sea otters being tested positive for phocine distemper virus- which is closely related with the canine distemper virus. This was in 2004, and the data collected, as well as the genetic analysis of the data expressed that the infections between the two groups were spread among each other, and Dr. Goldstein wanted to further pursue the reasoning and explanation for how two different types of animals from completely different parts of the world managed to spread the same disease to one another. Dr. Goldstein and other scientists noted the fact that although in 2002, the Arctic circle remained completely frozen, the Arctic Ocean was passable through the end of the summer. Goldstein and other scientists speculated that sea otters could have potentially traveled with the disease from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, although typically sea otters don’t travel very long journeys and typically stay closer to their homes. 

          Along with Goldstein, many other scientists believe that the thawing and melting of sea ice is responsible for the spreading of viruses at such a rapid pace, but don’t believe that it can only be through the sea otters, but also possibly through birds traveling long distances, or perhaps from ships travelling across many waters. Dr. Innis, a veterinarian at the New England Aquarium in Boston also posed the question about how illegal trading of animals could easily spread a virus across the bodies of water. None of the animals, especially the population of sea lions did not have the antibodies to fight the virus, until 2002, where Goldstein suggested that there was a huge difference in the levels of Steller sea lions, signifying that many could fight or recover from the virus. 

         Phocine distemper virus continues to be lethal among many harbor seals in the Atlantic, with many being found dead among the New England coast, however, the outbreaks started to reside among the population of harbor seals. Goldstein predicts that these outbreaks will continue to occur in cycles, when the seals and otters lose less immunity to the virus and become susceptible again to the virus. This article is a clear message to the detrimental effects of climate change, and its ability to kill very crucial populations of otters and sea lions.