Much information has been collected on health problems of bottlenose dolphins, but nevertheless, cetacean medicine is a relatively new science. In particular, the knowledge of viral diseases of dolphins is lagging behind those animals more commonly assessed in traditional veterinary medicine. The primary reasons for the failure to identify viral pathogens in dolphins are the lack of pre-existing knowledge about pathogens of marine mammals, the lack of rapid, specialized virus detection techniques, and the lack of state-of-the-art resources to detect previously unrecognized marine mammal viruses. As such, knowledge regarding the impact of viral infections in bottlenose dolphins is limited to morbilliviruses. It is assumed, however, that other viral pathogens play a role in population health as well.
The limitations of viral diagnostic tests triggered a research project funded by the Office of Naval Research that aimed to develop of state-of-the-art molecular tools for virus detection and conduct impact assessments of viruses on marine mammals. As part of this project, The Marine Animal Disease Lab was established at the College of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Florida. The lab also has facilities at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in San Diego, CA. We work in close collaboration with the Dolphin Research and Conservation Institute, SeaWorld Adventure Parks, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program and the National Marine Fisheries Service. During the first three years of this effort, 11 viruses, including 8 previously unidentified virus species and 2 previously unidentified virus families, were detected in dolphin samples. In comparison, prior to 2003, only 11 virus species had been reported in all marine mammal species combined.
Pathogen discovery efforts go beyond the simple cataloguing of these agents. Instead, the veterinary relevance of newly discovered viruses is explored via extensive disease investigations. The Dolphin Research and Conservation Institute contributes invaluable samples representing a clinically healthy, free-ranging bottlenose dolphin population. This information is then used to provide the science needed to generate guidelines for disease outbreak management and prevention strategies. Recent pathogen assessments include, but are not limited to poxviruses of dolphins, dolphin parainfluenzavirus type 1, herpesviruses of dolphins, and dolphin enteroviruses. Impact assessments of selected viruses indicated that exposure to viruses of free-ranging dolphins and dolphins under human care can be frequent. Some of these viruses do have the potential to impact animal health. Others appear to be indigenous and relatively harmless to the animals.