Thursday, February 10, 2011

Save our seals: Mystery sickness striking down British pups as vets treat double usual number


Baffling: Harbour seals are being left weak, starving and barely able to breathe with a disease that is baffling scientists

If he looks a little sorry for himself, then he has a very good reason.

Sitting on a vet's stretcher, this seal pup is one of dozens hit by a mystery illness which is devastating the species in one of its biggest British breeding grounds.

The sickness, which has baffled experts, leaves the animals weak, starving and barely able to breathe. Most of the casualties are pups, spotted struggling on Norfolk’s sandy beaches by passers by.

The number of harbour seals – also known as common seals – needing emergency veterinary care along the coast of East Anglia has doubled over the last 12 months.

Marine experts can find no signs of viral disease or bacteria as they nurse the animals back to health. While many have been infected with lungworm parasite, this is likely to be an underlying problem, not the cause.

Alison Charles, manager of the RSPCA East Winch Wildlife Centre near King’s Lynn, said: ‘We used to get orphaned pups in the summer when they are still very young.

‘But the season has extended and we have been getting emaciated and dehydrated older pups throughout the autumn and winter. Many have dry eyes and are coughing up blood and struggling to breathe.’

The centre has been running since 1992 and deals with 60 to 65 sick or abandoned seals in a typical year. In the past 12 months it has nursed a record 121 back to health.

Most of the common seals brought in to the centre feed and breed in the Wash, where the population has been stable.

There could be a link to the ‘corkscrew’ deaths of at least 20 Norfolk seals last summer. The corpses washed up with horrific corkscrew-shaped gashes running from head to tail. Experts believe the seals had been chopped up by propellers of large boats. Some of the latest sick pups may be the orphans of those mothers.

Helpless: One of the sick pups is helped off Norfolk beach by the RSPCA

Falling fish stocks in the North Sea could also be to blame.

Dr Dave Thompson, marine scientist at the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University, added: ‘If it was disease it would have been obvious by now.

‘It is possible there is something else happening at sea that we don’t know about.’

source: dailymail

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