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      Sometimes Sperm Whales ( Physeter macrocephalus) Cannot Find Their Way Back to the High Seas: A Multidisciplinary Study on a Mass Stranding

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          Mass strandings of sperm whales ( Physeter macrocephalus) remain peculiar and rather unexplained events, which rarely occur in the Mediterranean Sea. Solar cycles and related changes in the geomagnetic field, variations in water temperature and weather conditions, coast geographical features and human activities have been proposed as possible causes. In December 2009, a pod of seven male sperm whales stranded along the Adriatic coast of Southern Italy. This is the sixth instance from 1555 in this basin.

          Methodology/Principal Findings

          Complete necropsies were performed on three whales whose bodies were in good condition, carrying out on sampled tissues histopathology, virology, bacteriology, parasitology, and screening of veins looking for gas emboli. Furthermore, samples for age determination, genetic studies, gastric content evaluation, stable isotopes and toxicology were taken from all the seven specimens.

          The animals were part of the same group and determined by genetic and photo-identification to be part of the Mediterranean population. Causes of death did not include biological agents, or the “gas and fat embolic syndrome”, associated with direct sonar exposure. Environmental pollutant tissue concentrations were relatively high, in particular organochlorinated xenobiotics. Gastric content and morphologic tissue examinations showed a prolonged starvation, which likely caused, at its turn, the mobilization of lipophilic contaminants from the adipose tissue. Chemical compounds subsequently entered the blood circulation and may have impaired immune and nervous functions.


          A multi-factorial cause underlying this sperm whales' mass stranding is proposed herein based upon the results of postmortem investigations as well as of the detailed analyses of the geographical and historical background. The seven sperm whales took the same “wrong way” into the Adriatic Sea, a potentially dangerous trap for Mediterranean sperm whales. Seismic surveys should be also regarded as potential co-factors, even if no evidence of direct impact has been detected.

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          Most cited references 111

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              Direct and sensitive detection of a pathogenic protozoan, Toxoplasma gondii, by polymerase chain reaction.

              We applied the polymerase chain reaction to detection of the pathogenic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii based on our identification of a 35-fold-repetitive gene (the B1 gene) as a target. Using this procedure, we were able to amplify and detect the DNA of a single organism directly from a crude cell lysate. This level of sensitivity also allowed us to detect the B1 gene from purified DNA samples containing as few as 10 parasites in the presence of 100,000 human leukocytes. This is representative of the maximal cellular infiltration (10(5)/ml) in 1 ml of cerebrospinal fluid obtained from patients with toxoplasmic encephalitis. The B1 gene is present and conserved in all six T. gondii strains tested to date, including two isolates from patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. No signal was detected by using this assay and DNAs from a variety of other organisms, including several which might be found in the central nervous system of an immunocompromised host. This combination of sensitivity and specificity should make detection of the B1 gene based on polymerase chain reaction amplification a very useful method for diagnosis of toxoplasmosis both in immunocompromised hosts and in congenitally infected fetuses.

                Author and article information

                Role: Editor
                PLoS One
                PLoS ONE
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
                18 May 2011
                27 May 2011
                : 6
                : 5
                [1 ]Department of Public Health, Comparative Pathology and Veterinary Hygiene, University of Padua, Legnaro, Italy
                [2 ]Department of Comparative Biomedical Sciences, University of Teramo, Teramo, Italy
                [3 ]Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale della Puglia e della Basilicata, Foggia, Italy
                [4 ]Department of Environmental Science, University of Siena, Siena, Italy
                [5 ]Department of Veterinary Public Health, University of Bari, Valenzano, Italy
                [6 ]Department of Earth and Marine Science, University of Palermo, Palermo, Italy
                [7 ]Department of Evolutionary Biology, University of Firenze, Firenze, Italy
                [8 ]Department of Animal Biology, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioacoustics, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy
                [9 ]Museum of Natural History of Milan, Milano, Italy
                [10 ]Department for the Study Territory and its Resources, University of Genova, Genova, Italy
                [11 ]Department of Anatomy, Diagnostic Pathology, Forensic Medicine, Hygiene and Public Health, University of Catania, Catania, Italy
                [12 ]Department of Experimental Veterinary Science, University of Padua, Legnaro Italy
                [13 ]Tethys Research Institute, Milano, Italy
                [14 ]Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, Vouliagmeni, Greece
                [15 ]Department of Morphology, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Las Palmas, Spain
                Biodiversity Insitute of Ontario - University of Guelph, Canada
                Author notes

                Analyzed the data: SM A. Fernández GDG. Wrote the paper: SM BC. Performed pathological and virological investigations: SM GDG NZ. Performed bacteriology and biotoxins research: AP. Performed parasitological studies: DT FM. Investigated stable isotopes: SV. Performed genetic investigations: SG. Performed toxicological investigations and biological trials: LM CMF CL MF CC. Examined stomach contents: MP FG. Evaluated historical strandings, meteorological and environmental data: GP. Estimated the age of the animals: BC. Compared pictures of the whales with existing live animals databases: SA A. Frantzis. Analyzed gas and fat emboli: YDBQ A. Fernández.

                Mazzariol et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
                Page count
                Pages: 17
                Research Article
                Marine Biology
                Marine Conservation
                Marine Ecology
                Veterinary Science
                Veterinary Diseases
                Veterinary Parasitology
                Veterinary Pathology
                Veterinary Toxicology



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