Wildlife officials have determined that R028, a sick female Hawaiian monk seal under its care, is suffering from toxoplasmosis.
Following test results, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials determined that R028, also known as Pohaku, is suffering from the parasitic infection often spread into the environment via feral cat feces.
“Despite aggressive treatment, she is very lethargic, a sign that the infection is causing pain and severe inflammation throughout her internal organs,” said NOAA in the latest update on its website.
Officials picked up Pohaku from Ko Olina, and brought her to NOAA’s headquarters on Jan. 22 for monitoring after reports that she was “logging,” or lethargically floating on the water, a sign of possible illness.
“Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that reproduces in the digestive system of cats and spreads oocysts (eggs) into the environment via cat feces,” said NOAA officials in the post. “Feral cats, of which there are an estimated 50,000 to 300,000 on the island of Oahu alone, are the primary source of T. gondii oocysts in Hawaii.”
Hawaiian monk seals are exposed to these oocysts when they consume contaminated prey or water.
The parasite destroys vital tissues, such as muscle, liver, heart and brain tissues, officials said, which can lead to organ failure. Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine for toxoplasmosis, and treatment options for infected seals are extremely limited.
So far, Pohaku has done better than most monk seals with toxoplasmosis, who are often found dead without warning. Two seals that were rescued prior to death succumbed to the disease within 48 hours.
“However, we are very guarded in our optimism,” NOAA officials said. “RO28’s prognosis is still poor given the aggressive nature of this disease and RO28’s lethargic condition in intensive care.”
To date, 11 Hawaiian monk seals are known to have died as a direct result of toxoplasmosis, but the number is likely higher due to unreported cases. Toxoplasmosis also affects other marine animals, including spinner dolphins and native birds, including alala, or Hawaiian crows.
NOAA officials say the public can help reduce the transmission of toxoplasmosis by keeping pet cats indoors, and making them indoor cats.
NOAA was also sad to report that RKC1, a juvenile, male monk seal also known as Sole, was found dead in Laie on Oahu the afternoon of Jan. 26. In 2018, Sole was rescued as a prematurely weaned pup on Molokai, and successfully rehabilitated at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola in Kona.
He was released back into the wild near his birth site on Molokai, and sighted on Oahu shortly afterwards, but had only been seen a handful of times since them. The cause of his death is still being determined through a postmorten examination.
Hawaiian monk seals are a critically endangered species, with only an estimated 1,400 living in the wild.