Unchartered waters: Climate change likely to intensify infectious disease outbreaks causing mass mortality events in marine mammals

TitleUnchartered waters: Climate change likely to intensify infectious disease outbreaks causing mass mortality events in marine mammals
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsSanderson, CE, Alexander, KA
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Pagination4284 - 4301
Date Published08/2020
ISBN Number1354-1013
Keywordscetacean, climate change, infectious disease, mass mortality, morbillivirus, pinniped, sea surface temperature

Infectious disease emergence has increased significantly over the last 30 years, with mass mortality events (MMEs) associated with epizootics becoming increasingly common. Factors influencing these events have been widely studied in terrestrial systems, but remain relatively unexplored in marine mammals. Infectious disease‐induced MMEs (ID MMEs) have not been reported ubiquitously among marine mammal species, indicating that intrinsic (host) and/or extrinsic (environmental) ecological factors may influence this heterogeneity. We assess the occurrence of ID MMEs (1955–2018) across extant marine mammals (n = 129) in relation to key life‐history characteristics (sociality, trophic level, habitat breadth) and environmental variables (season, sea surface temperature [SST] anomalies, El Niño occurrence). Our results show that ID MMEs have been reported in 14% of marine mammal species (95% CI 9%–21%), with 72% (n = 36; 95% CI 56%–84%) of these events caused predominantly by viruses, primarily morbillivirus and influenza A. Bacterial pathogens caused 25% (95% CI 14%–41%) of MMEs, with only one being the result of a protozoan pathogen. Overall, virus‐induced MMEs involved a greater number of fatalities per event compared to other pathogens. No association was detected between the occurrence of ID MMEs and host characteristics, such as sociality or trophic level, but ID MMEs did occur more frequently in semiaquatic species (pinnipeds) compared to obligate ocean dwellers (cetaceans; χ2 = 9.6, p = .002). In contrast, extrinsic factors significantly influenced ID MMEs, with seasonality linked to frequency (χ2 = 19.85, p = .0002) and severity of these events, and global yearly SST anomalies positively correlated with their temporal occurrence (Z = 3.43, p = 2.7e‐04). No significant association was identified between El Niño and ID MME occurrence (Z = 0.28, p = .81). With climate change forecasted to increase SSTs and the frequency of extreme seasonal weather events, epizootics causing MMEs are likely to intensify with significant consequences for marine mammal survival.

Short TitleGlob Change Biol