Viral emergence in marine mammals in the North Pacific may be linked to Arctic sea ice reduction

Climate change-driven alterations in Arctic environments can influence habitat availability, species distributions and interactions, and the breeding, foraging, and health of marine mammals. Phocine distemper virus (PDV), which has caused extensive mortality in Atlantic seals, was confirmed in sea otters in the North Pacific Ocean in 2004, raising the question of whether reductions in sea ice could increase contact between Arctic and sub-Arctic marine mammals and lead to viral transmission across the Arctic Ocean. Using data on PDV exposure and infection and animal movement in sympatric seal, sea lion, and sea otter species sampled in the North Pacific Ocean from 2001–2016, we investigated the timing of PDV introduction, risk factors associated with PDV emergence, and patterns of transmission following introduction. We identified widespread exposure to and infection with PDV across the North Pacific Ocean beginning in 2003 with a second peak of PDV exposure and infection in 2009; viral transmission across sympatric marine mammal species; and association of PDV exposure and infection with reductions in Arctic sea ice extent. Peaks of PDV exposure and infection following 2003 may reflect additional viral introductions among the diverse marine mammals in the North Pacific Ocean linked to change in Arctic sea ice extent.

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