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Toxin found in endangered Hawaiian seals

Hawaiian Monk Seal swims in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Credit: NOAA.
Hawaiian Monk Seal swims in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Credit: NOAA.

WASHINGTON, June 8 (UPI) -- A dangerous toxin known to affect humans was identified for the first time in a marine mammal species, a critically endangered Hawaiian seal, researchers say.

Researchers from National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration have discovered the potent and highly-debilitating toxin ciguatoxin in the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, a first-of-its-kind chemical finding prompting investigations of other marine mammals in the state, a NOAA release said Wednesday.

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Ciguatoxin is produced by marine algae common on coral reefs and accumulates in fish species consumed by humans, causing a disease called ciguatera with symptoms resembling chronic fatigue syndrome.

The NOAA study showed that Hawaiian monk seals, whose population is estimated at just 1100-1200 animals and falling, are exposed to significant levels of these ciguatoxins.

Monk seals were sampled throughout the Hawaiian Islands and the samples were shipped to NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science laboratory in Charleston, S.C., for toxin analyses.

"Based upon this study, we believe that ciguatoxin exposure is common in the monk seal population," said Charles Littnan, study co-author and scientist with NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. "This study is an important first step. However, we still need to understand more clearly how widespread exposure is and more importantly what role it may be playing in the decline of the species."

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