Toxoplasmosis and Fibropapillomatosis

Unseen Impacts: Toxoplasmosis and Fibropapillomatosis

By Kathleen Barkats

In addition to its beautiful beaches, Hawaii is home to many marine animals. As a visitor or resident, it is common to experience Hawaii’s wildlife, such as sea turtles popping their heads up from the water and Hawaiian monk seals resting on the beach. Unfortunately, marine species like these face many environmental threats including debris entanglement, physical trauma, habitat loss, and many more. These important issues come to the forefront of environmental discussion because of how broadly they impact the oceans. However, there exist lesser-known issues that pose particular threats to specific species. For the Hawaiian monk seal, Neomonachus schauinslandi, toxoplasmosis is a life-threatening disease. Fibropapillomatosis is the similar disease for green sea turtles, Chelonia mydas. Human activity is likely perpetuating these diseases, which pose serious threats to both species.

Toxoplasmosis is a parasite spread by cats, the only definitive hosts (Dubey 2016). This disease can be transmitted to humans also, and is a primary concern for pregnant women where the disease can cause birth defects. In the marine environment, toxoplasmosis can impact marine mammals such as the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and dolphins.

Toxoplasmosis spreads through a specific sequence of events. The parasite is present in intermediate hosts like mice and birds and it is passed on to animals that consume these hosts. When cats predate these intermediate hosts, they consume parasitic cysts and become infected. Toxoplasmosis reproduces exclusively within cats, who shed the oocysts (the egg form of a parasite) through their feces and spread the parasite throughout the environment. Toxoplasmosis oocysts work their way into waterways that feed into the ocean. As a result, Hawaiian monk seals and dolphins can ingest the parasite through consumption of prey in the marine ecosystem.

Toxoplasmosis is a major cause of death in Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands. It has killed at least eight animals since 2001 (NOAA 2018) and this is very significant given the small remaining population of these endangered animals. According to the Center for Disease Control, symptoms in humans generally present as flu-like, although some infections remain asymptomatic. As such, the disease is difficult to detect and treat in any species. Seals with toxoplasmosis can face impaired reproductive, brain, and immune system functions (NOAA 2019). Animals that do not die from the disease become much more vulnerable to natural environmental stressors.

There is an incredibly large population of feral cats in Hawaii and these animals rapidly spread toxoplasmosis oocytes throughout the environment. To reduce this impact, humans should avoid feeding and interacting with feral cats as it supports the population. Instead, opt for environmentally safer alternatives like catch and release sterilization, adoption and broader feral cat management strategies. In the same vein, domesticated cats must stay indoors unless supervised. Outdoor cats can unfortunately put the lives of native fauna, like seabirds, at stake. Some countries with problematic feral cat populations, such as Australia and New Zealand, have introduced eradication operations to minimize damage to native ecosystems.

While monk seals struggle with toxoplasmosis, sea turtles face Fibropapillomatosis (FP), which is a viral infection. Both green sea turtles (honu) and hawksbill sea turtles (‘ea) live in Hawaii, with hawksbill turtles being very endangered. While HMAR responds more often to green sea turtles affected by FP, all turtle species are vulnerable to its impacts. FP is presumed to be a strain of herpes; however, there is no substantial evidence to support this theory other than the quick spreading of the virus and the fact that there is no known cure (Whitehouse 2015).

Fibropapillomatosis presents as tumors that appear on the faces, bodies, and vital organs of sea turtles. Because not all tumors are visible to the naked eye, it can be impossible to tell if green sea turtles are infected. Those with external tumors can have impaired vision or mobility, putting them in danger in the surrounding environment, while internal tumors can impair the function of vital organs. Individuals can die from these tumors whether they are internal or external, and attempts to remove tumors often become thwarted by recurrence. Humans do not yet have a clear understanding of how this disease spreads. Research from the University of Hawaii at Manoa indicates that nitrogen runoff in the nearshore ecosystem could be linked to tumor growth. Nitrogen increases the amount of the amino acid arginine in invasive algae and seaweed, which are staples in the sea turtle diet. Studies show that arginine actually promotes the FP virus (Smith and Zimmerman 2014). Chris Whitehouse proposes another theory in his 2015 overview of FP. He suggests that FP could be transmitted between honu through direct contact of uninfected turtles with infected turtles, although there is no certain conclusion.

Unlike toxo, FP proves more challenging to prevent. According to the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease, FP prevalence was diminished by the removal of infected animals in some areas of Hawaii. Sea turtles usually inhabit near-shore environments where pollution and runoff are often greatest. By cleaning coastal waterways and shorelines, or supporting regulation of permitted runoff, we might reduce pathogens that can cause FP to develop in the first place. In addition, reporting sightings of injured or infected sea turtles help HMAR and NOAA keep track of the prevalence and spread of this disease.

Sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals are keystone species, so toxoplasmosis and FP impact the function of the wider Hawaiian marine ecosystem. Both are particularly susceptible to pathogens in the oceans and help indicate the health of ocean environments. Thus far, these diseases have been nearly impossible to eliminate, so humans must take preventative action to minimize the contribution to these deadly diseases. Becoming informed of the issues facing monk seals and sea turtles helps us understand the impacts of our daily choices. Supervising pets, minimizing pollution, and reporting distressed marine animal sightings are significant forms of assistance. These small adjustments bring us closer to allowing monk seals and sea turtles to thrive in the generations to come.


Escalations & Rescue Examples

Some Examples of Recent Escalations & Rescues

Sea Turtles:  While green sea turtles spend most of their time around rocks and reefs deftly avoiding running into these structures, every once in a while, one gets stuck. Recently, HMAR responded to a report of a large 3-foot-long turtle lodged in the reef on the north shore of Oahu. Most of the time the turtles are not stuck - they are just basking or foraging - however after our hotline operator gathered all the necessary information from the caller, it became obvious from the photos that the animal was lodged in a crevasse and unable to free itself. When our responder arrived on the scene, we were able to dislodge the animal from the spot but a wave pushed it right back in. In order for us to free the animal, we would have to completely remove it from the reef and relocate it down the beach. Luckily for us, a wave helped us free the animal! We got it out and moved it about 5 feet away from where it was so it could safely re-enter the water. Many thanks to our HMAR responder who was able to help this turtle!

Hawaiian Monk Seals:  One of the problematic threats for Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles and seabirds is entanglement in fishing gear such as fishing line, hooks, and nets (Boland and Donahue, 2003). One of the Hawaiian monk seals we see regularly on Oahu had such an encounter earlier this year. A sub-adult female seal named RH48 “Lei Ola” showed up hooked on the west side of Oahu. She had a superficial hook but was dragging some fishing line behind her. Our partners at NOAA were concerned about the fishing line as this could present an entanglement hazard, so NOAA attempted an intervention to trim the line but this was unsuccessful. HMAR then started escalated surveys for this animal along many miles of shoreline for many hours each day. This continued for several days and twice again an intervention was attempted but was unsuccessful. We continued our daily surveys and many days later we were happy to find this animal without a hook. At some point during the days we were looking for the animal, she had thrown the hook on her own. HMAR is regularly engaged in escalations regarding Hawaiian monk seals. It’s part of the important work we do to help this and other vulnerable species.

These two stories are just examples of the many interventions, escalations & rescues we are involved in regularly.  During 2018, we performed over 260 of these operations.  With your help, we can continue this important work. Please donate or choose other ways to help by clicking HERE.

Mahalo for your support!


Rare Birds News

Rare Birds Could Be Making Oahu Home Once Again

by Christine Tarski

Hundreds of years ago, the Newell's Shearwater, ‘a’o,  were abundant, thriving, and flying over the waters surrounding all the main Hawaiian Islands.  Uncovered fossils show that large colonies of these birds were established in the middle and higher levels of highly vegetated mountain peaks. Native Hawaiians hunted the birds extensively on Oahu to the point that there were no remaining birds left in the beginning of the 1800’s when Europeans began moving to the islands. With the introduction of invasive owls, cats, mongoose, pigs, and rats on other islands, the ‘a’o population was further decreased.

Although they were once believed extinct, important new research suggests ‘a’o may be living and breeding on Oahu. Established as a new species in 1900, the ‘a’o were sadly declared extinct in 1908, but were amazingly rediscovered at sea in 1947.  Biologists were thrilled to find breeding pairs on Kaua’i in 1967.  In the 1990’s, ‘a’o’ numbers were estimated at 20,000 breeding pairs. ‘A’o’s are nocturnal and make nesting areas by burrowing into sheer mountain cliffs covered with dense vegetation. These two facts made studying the remaining birds very difficult.

We know that ‘a’o’s lay a single egg around June, which is incubated by both parents.  Once the chick hatches, both parents continue to care for and feed the chick collaboratively.  Parents may fly hundreds of miles and return at night to feed the chick. By November, the chick fledges and is on its own.

In the fall of 1992, Hurricane Iniki wiped out many of the chicks who were close to fledging.  Further decrease in the population of these seabirds has resulted from predators, light pollution, collision with power lines/wind turbines, habitat loss, and possible disease.

‘A’o’s are now considered classified as threatened by both state and federal governments. Breeding colonies are mainly on Kaua’i, with smaller colonies on Hawai’i, Lehua and Molokai.  ‘A’o’s have been seen on other islands occasionally, including Oahu, but were considered birds that were thrown off course by storms or confused by city light pollution.
Since the 1990’s, numerous groups have been working to implement conservation measures.  These measures include hooding all street lights on Kaua’i and reducing resort lighting, initiating and increasing predator controls, and establishing native plant life in nesting areas.

For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recovery action planning, Pacific Rim Conservation’s Lindsay Young conducted a statewide survey of several seabirds, including ‘a’o’s, during 2016-2017.  Her team used acoustic recorders, putting the devices in very remote high mountainous areas, sometimes using helicopters, sometimes climbing and scaling dangerously steep crags.  Although Oahu was not included in the islands to survey, Young, who lives on Oahu, decided to place recorders in 15 places on this island.

Her team was very excited to hear calls of the ‘a’o over the two years of recording.  ‘A’o were heard at two places on Oahu: one was on the leeward slopes of Mount Kaala in the Waianae Mountains and another at Poamoho in the Koolau Mountains.

Although there could be nesting colonies on Oahu, Young feels these also could be “young birds from other islands that are searching for mates and breeding sites.  Either way, it gives us hope that we will be able to … attract them to nest on an island where they were once abundant.”

So, how do you and I recognize these once extinct birds?  ‘A’o or Newell’s Shearwater are highly pelagic (on the open ocean) throughout the year.  From April through November, ‘a’o’s can be seen in the Hawaiian Islands.  The rest of the year, they take to the tropical ocean, as far west as the Mariana Islands and as south as Samoa. They are 13” in length with a wingspan of 8.8 - 9.8”.  Both male and females are a very dark brown above with a white throat and underparts.  Their bill is also dark with a hooked tip while the legs and feet are pink.  When seen flying, these birds fly fast and low over the water with rapid wing beats and fewer glides.

‘A’o’s will dive into the ocean and actually swim down to 30’ with their wings partially folded to catch their prey.  They gather with other seabirds and look for schools of tuna.  The tuna drive smaller fish and squid to the surface where the ‘a’o’s happily feed.  Their call, usually only heard in nesting areas, sounds like a donkey braying.

As well as watching the ocean for seals, sea turtles, whales and dolphins, be sure to also look up to the sky, and keep your binoculars ready.  You could very well spot an ‘a’o for yourself.

Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR) is a first responder for Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles on Oahu and we also handle rescues and transport for seabirds that may need assistance. If you see a seabird that may need help, please call our hotline at (808) 687-7900. If you see a marine mammal or sea turtle of concern, please call us (888) 256-9840. Learn more about HMAR, Hawaii’s protected marine animals and how you can help HERE.


Sponsor Programs

Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR) Sponsorship Programs

It takes a lot to run our field response, outreach, rescue and marine debris programs. We work hard to cover our costs through grants and private donations, but we still need help. We’re looking for local partners and sponsors to support our ongoing work and help us make an even bigger impact on the protected marine animals and the ocean ecosystem we all love. Whether your organization shares a beach with resting monk seals or your guests come back year after year to enjoy seeing sea turtles and seabirds, this is an opportunity to directly support the conservation of these important animals.

Your organization, company or foundation can play an important role in helping HMAR in our mission of helping Hawaii's protected marine animals and our shared ocean ecosystem.  We offer several different sponsorship programs, or we can customize a program especially for you.

Sponsorship benefits include:

  • Positive community awareness of your proactive preservation and stewardship efforts.
  • Employee participation in HMAR conservation efforts.
  • A package of exclusive, high-value rewards that include brand alignment and media exposure.

Interested in becoming a Sponsor?

Below you’ll find an outline of the different packages we offer to supporting organizations. Your contribution can be financial, in-kind, or a combination of both. You can choose one of the programs below or we can customize a program for you based on your interests, financial commitment level and other factors. Please take the next step in becoming a HMAR sponsor by sending us an email by clicking HERE.

Platinum Level Sponsor

This sponsorship level is tied to a commitment to provide financial and/or in-kind sponsorship at a minimum of $50,000 per year. The Platinum Level Sponsorship includes:

  • Line of business exclusivity with right to veto competitors who are prospective Platinum, Gold, or Silver sponsors.
  • Press Release, Facebook and Instagram announcement.
  • License to use HMAR logo for use on web, marketing and other promotional materials.
  • License to use selected HMAR images and videos for events or social media posts.
  • Name and logo recognition positioning on HMAR “Platinum Sponsors” webpage with live link to the sponsor’s URL.
  • Framed and signed artist print for location of your choice.
  • HMAR website footer logo recognition.
  • Placement on HMAR supporters page with live link to sponsor’s URL.
  • Sponsor logo at the end of HMAR videos.
  • Sponsor logo recognition/signage at HMAR field response locations (subject to response conditions).
  • Sponsor logo placement at outreach tables at community and school events.
  • Placement on HMAR Facebook Page on cover image
  • Name and logo placement in HMAR email newsletter.
  • Name and logo placement on HMAR staff email signatures.
  • Name and logo placement on HMAR staff business cards and letterhead.
  • Name and logo placement in public advertising and awareness campaigns, including banners and flyers.
  • Up to 2 free Hawaii Marine Stewards annual employee training events.
  • Planning and execution of two activities for up to 50 sponsor staff and/or sponsor invitees (coordination and planning covered, but hard costs apply for transport/food), such as:
    • “Pup Prep” cleanup on beaches where monk seals typically give birth
    • “VIP Pup Picnic” at a safe distance from a new pup and mom
    • Mural painting party with local artist (subject to availability of appropriate wall)
  • Opportunity to provide sponsor marketing materials, run competitions, or provide giveaways at events.
  • Opportunity to provide co-branded merchandise for our team members to wear during media appearances, beach cleanups, and education/outreach events (hats, reusable water bottles, T-Shirts, etc.).
  • Opportunity to provide sponsor marketing materials, run competitions, or provide giveaways at events.
  • Additional partnership opportunities possible.

Gold Level Sponsor

This sponsorship level is tied to a commitment to provide financial and/or in-kind sponsorship at a minimum of $25,000 per year. The Gold Level Sponsorship includes:

  • Press Release, Facebook and Instagram announcement.
  • License to use HMAR logo for use on web, marketing and other promotional materials.
  • License to use selected images and videos for events or social media posts
  • License to use selected HMAR images and videos for events or social media posts.
  • Name and logo recognition positioning on HMAR “Gold Sponsors” webpage with live link to the sponsor’s URL.
  • Framed and signed artist print for location of your choice.
  • HMAR website footer logo recognition.
  • Placement on HMAR supporters page with live link to sponsor’s URL.
  • Logo at the end of HMAR videos.
  • Logo recognition/signage at HMAR field response locations (subject to response conditions).
  • Up to 2 free Hawaii Marine Stewards annual employee training events
  • Planning and execution of two activities for up to 25 sponsor staff and/or sponsor invitees (coordination and planning covered, but hard costs apply for transport/food), such as:
    • “Pup Prep” cleanup on beaches where monk seals typically give birth
    • “VIP Pup Picnic” at a safe distance from a new pup and mom
    • Mural painting party with local artist (subject to availability of appropriate wall)
  • Opportunity to provide marketing materials, run competitions, or provide giveaways at events.
  • Further opportunities to be discussed.

Silver Level Sponsor

This sponsorship level is tied to a commitment to provide financial and/or in-kind sponsorship at a minimum of $10,000 per year. The Silver Level Sponsorship includes:

  • Press Release, Facebook and Instagram announcement.
  • License to use HMAR logo for use on web, marketing and other promotional materials.
  • License to use selected images and videos for events or social media posts
  • License to use selected HMAR images and videos for events or social media posts.
  • Name and logo recognition positioning on HMAR “Silver Sponsors” webpage with live link to the sponsor’s URL.
  • Framed and signed artist print for location of your choice.
  • Supporters page with live link to specified URL.
  • Logo at the end of HMAR videos
  • Logo recognition/signage at HMAR field response locations (subject to response conditions)
  • Up to 2 free Hawaii Marine Stewards annual employee training events

Supporter Level Sponsor

This sponsorship level is tied to a commitment to provide financial and/or in-kind sponsorship of a minimum of $1,000 per year. The Supporter Level Sponsorship includes:

  • Press Release, Facebook and Instagram announcement.
  • License to use HMAR logo for use on web, marketing and other promotional materials.
  • License to use selected images and videos for events or social media posts
  • Name and logo recognition positioning on HMAR “Supporters” webpage with live link to the sponsor’s specified URL.

Won't your organization help us to continue and to expand our important work? If you can, please email us by clicking HERE.

Mahalo for your support!