Florida Tech to study toxic algae impact on dolphins

[USA] All those wild dolphins license plates could bring Florida scientists closer to figuring out just how much toxic algae a bottlenose dolphin can bear.

Researchers at Florida Institute of Technology and FAU-Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, recently won a $275,000 grant from Florida’s Protect Wild Dolphins Specialty License Plate Fund. They’ll use the money for a 3-year study of how a toxic algae called Microcystis harms dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon and what that might mean for humans.

“Anything you see happening to the health of these populations would indicate a risk to human populations,” said Spencer Fire, an assistant professor of biological sciences at FIT who will conduct the research.

Microcystis typically inhabits fresh water, not semi-salty waters like the lagoon. But after heavy rains, large water releases from Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding temporarily turn the St. Lucie River and estuary into almost fresh water. Huge water releases from the lake last year contributed to one of the St. Lucie region’s worst Microcystis blooms on record, releasing a toxin called microcystin that fouled coastal areas

Microcystin is toxic to fish, plants, invertebrates and mammals, including humans. The toxin can magnify in mussels, crayfish, fish and crops irrigated with contaminated water.

Algae is blooming in waterways all around the country
In humans, microcystin ingestion can cause diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Swimming in water where the toxin is present can cause rashes. Microcystin has been linked with liver cancer in lab mice, but its long-term effects on humans are less certain.

Scientists are investigating how microcystis thrived in the lagoon, and nationally last year.

Algae is blooming in waterways all around the country
The FIT and FAU researchers also plan to examine how dolphins are affected by BMAA — a commonplace algae toxin in crabs, shellfish and other seafood possibly linked with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Scientists long have suspected an association between BMAA and neurodegenerative illness. But the causes remain mostly unknown, and the role of environmental factors poorly understood.

BMAA toxin may also be harming the neurological health of dolphins, manatees and other lagoon wildlife, causing them to wander far astray from usual routes, research in recent years suggests.

The toxin accumulates over time. Researchers at University of Miami have found levels of BMAA in lagoon dolphin tissues similar to what is seen in brains of humans with Alzheimer’s disease. The dolphins accumulate the same entangled protein in their brains that is associated with Alzheimer’s.

In a 2010 study, University of Miami researchers found the highest levels of BMAA in blue crabs, shrimp and pufferfish among the samples examined in South Florida.

The FIT and at FAU researchers want to figure out how algae toxins affect dolphin prey as well. They’ll test for the algae toxins in the water, lagoon sediment and animal tissue when algae blooms are absent, to establish baseline levels. Then they’ll test again during algae blooms.

They hope to find correlations between toxin levels and dolphin pathology, and to see if the dolphin food web is contaminated.

The research could yield clues to human health risks.

“They are a sentinel species,” Fire said of dolphins. “They’re sort of a barometer of ocean health.”

Lagoon dolphins look better, but are they healthy?
The dolphin license plate is administered by FAU-Harbor Branch.

 

View original article at: Florida Tech to study toxic algae impact on dolphins

 

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