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Are Dolphins Warning Humans About Health Risks?

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

Part II in a series on the human-ocean connection and cancer.

Dolphins may well be the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to human health and the state of our global ecosystem.

It may surprise you to learn that dolphins and humans have quite a bit in common; both are mammals and we share much of the same seafood sources. Unlike us, however, they are exposed to potential ocean health threats such as toxic algae or poor water quality 24 hours a day so scientists are looking to dolphin populations for clues about our health.

“Our ecological and physiological similarities make dolphins an important ‘sentinel species’ to not only warn of our health risks, but also provide insight into how our health can benefit from new medical discoveries,” said Carolyn Sotka with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Oceans and Human Health Initiative.

Sotka participated on a panel of governmental, academic and non-profit scientists who spoke at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that focused on research suggesting that diseases found in dolphins are similar to human diseases and provide clues into how human health might be affected by exposure to contaminated coastal water or seafood.

Marine viruses and public health
Recently, the University of Florida Marine Animal Disease Lab research team has discovered at least 50 new viruses in dolphins, the majority of which have yet to be reported in any other marine mammal species. Some of these viruses could jump species and affect humans or other animals.

“We know that the ocean harbors a huge diversity of viruses; but we have very limited knowledge as to which viruses dolphins are susceptible to and how they develop the disease,” said Hendrik H. Nollens, Ph.D., research lead of the UF team. “By studying dolphin viral ecology, we learned more about how viruses infect human and land animals. This research could lead to preventing outbreaks of disease.”

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.