April 15, 2024

Photo-Identification and Skin Lesion Prevalence of Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops erebennus) in the Waters of New York and New Jersey


Sarah G. Trabue, Melinda L. Rekdahl, and Howard C. Rosenbaum


Document: Article

Abstract: Cetaceans can serve as sentinel species in marine environments as long-lived, apex predators that can concentrate environmental contaminants with potential health consequences. Thus, monitoring the well-being of these species may provide an additional indicator of ecosystem health. In cetaceans, one method for assessing individual and population health is by examining skin conditions. For decades, skin lesions have been increasingly documented in coastal populations of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.) worldwide. Lesion presence can indicate diminished health and may reflect environmental stressors. Herein, we document the prevalence of epidermal lesions/marks in bottlenose dolphins from the waters off New York and New Jersey during their seasonal presence from spring to fall. Photographs of distinct individuals sighted from May to October 2017 to 2021 were compiled into a catalog, and skin lesions were categorized and counted. Annually, the lowest skin lesion prevalence was in 2021 (p = 0.31), and the highest was in 2017 (p = 0.81). By month, prevalence generally decreased from spring to fall. Overall lesion prevalence in this population was higher than reported estimates for other populations in the coastal waters of the United States. The five most common categories were cloudy white spots, dark spots, white amorphous lesions, tattoo lesions, and dark fringe lesions; and the three most common groups were potentially pathogenic lesions, hypopigmentation, and rake mark-associated potentially pathogenic lesions. Some of the observed lesions have been associated with viral infections that may be exacerbated by environmental stressors. This research establishes an important baseline for further studies into bottlenose dolphin population health in and around the New York–New Jersey Harbor Estuary, particularly given the continued expansion of anthropogenic activities, including those related to forthcoming offshore wind development.

Key Words: infectious disease, sentinel species, estuarine, dermopathology, bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops erebennus

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1578/AM.50.2.2024.65

Page Numbers: 65-85

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