Killer cat parasite spreads to Arctic: Toxoplasma found in beluga whales

Concern for Native Inuits over potentially dangerous parasite as whale meat is an important part of their diet


A parasite that lives in domestic cats has spread to beluga whales in the Arctic which scientists believe have been infected through water or fish that have been contaminated with cat faeces washed into the sea.

Tests have shown that the Toxoplasma parasite, which is potentially dangerous to pregnant mammals including humans, is now infecting more than 10 per cent of beluga whales living in the Beaufort Sea off Canada.

Native Inuits living in the area have been warned to take precautions when preparing and cooking beluga whale meat, which is an important part of their traditional diet. Toxoplasma can cause serious health problems for pregnant women, such as congenital disorders and miscarriages.

Michael Grigg of the University of British Columbia said that it is the first time an infectious form of Toxoplasma gondii has been found in the sea mammals living in the Arctic and its appearance could be related to a warmer climate as well as an increasing number of pet cats being kept by locals in the region.

“This common parasite is now emerging in the Arctic. We found it for the first time in a population of western Arctic beluga in the Beaufort Sea. This is a parasite found in cats so why is it found in the Arctic and why are we seeing it in beluga? That’s what we are investigating,” Dr Grigg told the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Toxoplasma parasite, a single-celled microbe, can infect most warm-blooded animals but it must complete its complex life cycle in cats. It is usually harmless or causes only mild symptoms but it can cause more serious problems, such as blindness and miscarriages.

“There is no indication yet that the beluga whales were suffering any undue symptoms. There was only mild inflammation so this would suggest it has set up a transmissible, naturally infectious agent,” Dr Grigg said.

“However, we’re only seeing the healthy animals. Those that potentially get sick and get rapidly scavenged to we might be missing those. We didn’t see it before, we’re seeing it now. We’re not seeing it dramatically  increase, but our sample sizes are small because of difficulty in getting access to the animals,” he told the meeting.

The scientists first identified the parasite in beluga whales in 2009 and an analysis of stored beluga blood samples indicates that the microbe has been infecting the beluga of the Beaufort Sea at least since 2006 and has since infected between 10 and 14 per cent of the whale population in the region, he said.

“With climate change there is an unprecedented opportunity for pathogens to shift to new environments and cause new disease. With increasing temperatures pathogens can persist and gain access to new hosts,” Dr Grigg said.

The most likely explanation for the appearance of Toxoplasma in the Arctic is that contaminated cat faeces has been washed into the sea and carried into the beluga environment.

“It has to have been some kind of contamination of the waterway and the typical type of food source of the beluga...we know that Toxoplasma could be transported by fish as a vector where it gains access to the intestinal tract of beluga,” he said.

“Toxoplasma is actually quite common in sea-mammal populations [outside the polar region]. Infection rates can range between 40 and 60 per cent. What was surprising is that it’s not really been in the Arctic yet,” Dr Grigg said.

Local Inuit have changed many of their traditional habits and have brought pet dogs and cats to their settlements, he said.

“Toxoplasma is a cosmopolitan parasite. It tends not to cause disease in its immediate host but some strains can be quite pathogenic,” Dr Grigg said.

“A cat can excrete 100 million infectious Toxoplasma oocysts [seeds] and all it takes is for one of these oocysts to infect a warm-blooded vertebrate like ourselves.

“They are incredibly stable in the environment. You can put them in 100 per cent chlorine bleach and it won’t kill them. The only way to kill them is to freeze them, dessicate them or boil them,” he said.

“If there is infection in whales and the meat is not appropriately cooked then there is a risk of infection,” he added.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas