Green Flipper Tagged Gray Seal Pup, Muskeget Island, MA
Several outbreaks of influenza viral infection in marine mammals have been documented in the last 30-40 years in New England. As recently as 2011, the marine mammal stranding networks in the New England area identified an unusually high number of Harbor Seal strandings, leading to the declaration of an unusual mortality event (UME). Further analyses pointed to the influenza strain H3N8 as the cause of this UME.
The Runstadler lab at MIT moved from the University of Alaska in the fall of 2011 and has been involved in influenza surveillance research as a part of the NIH/NIAID supported CEIRS Center for Research on Influenza Pathogenesis (CRIP, Mt. Sinai). Their research is directed at understanding the natural history, evolution, and molecular biology of influenza virus in reservoir and non-reservoir species. In light of the notable history of influenza in marine mammals, particularly, but not exclusively in the Gulf of Maine, they are currently undertaking a multiyear long-term field and laboratory program for the continuing study of influenza in New England.
The Runstadler lab has a particular interest in understanding if marine mammals are commonly exposed to, and regularly harbor, influenza virus. They are further interested in understanding the factors that allow for naturally circulating avian influenza virus to cross into mammalian species, such as seals, and to ultimately identify predictors as to which strains of virus have a high probability of making such a species switch. Furthermore, through this work they would like to better understand if influenza infection in marine mammals plays any role in the generation of mammalian transmissible viruses that could impact human public health.
January 2015 marks the third year that this research effort has been underway and steadily growing. The first 100 Muskeget born gray seal pups were screened for influenza in the early weeks of 2013 in collaboration with Kathryn Ono of University of New England.
As approximately 10% of the animals were found to test positive for having influenza , sampling efforts were doubled in 2014. Both the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) and Mystic Aquarium were instrumental in providing expertise and resources that have enabled the program to grow. This year, gray seal pups are being sampled from both Muskeget and Monomoy Islands, and the project has expanded to include additional collaborations from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium (NASRC), University of Connecticut, University of Rhode Island, New England Aquarium, National Marine Life Center, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Marine Mammals of Maine, Riverhead Foundation, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Services. This diverse group of experts provides a depth of skill and a richness of research interests that have the potential to shed substantial insights on such areas as gray seal biology, health and disease, diet, genetics, and migratory and reproductive patterns.
As part of this event, over 100 seals were flipper tagged with green, yellow and orange tags. Help us all learn about where these gray seal pups go and report sightings of seals with these tags to main.whoi.edu.
Last updated: October 7, 2018