An adult male Māui or Hector’s dolphin found dead on an isolated south Auckland beach has been determined to have died from toxoplasmosis, the Department of Conservation (DOC) announced today.
The dolphin was discovered at Walton’s Gap, on the Āwhitu Peninsula in March, by a member of the public who reported it to the Department.
DOC’s Acting Marine Species Manager, Kristina Hillock says the dolphin was sent for a necropsy at Massey University, which confirmed it died from toxoplasmosis.
Toxoplasmosis develops when mammals ingest the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. The disease has been identified as a threat to the Māui and Hector’s dolphins who inhabit the oceans around New Zealand.
“Analysis of several of the dead dolphin’s internal organs – including its brain, heart and liver – revealed significant lesions consistent with toxoplasmosis,” Ms Hillock says.
“The toxoplasma parasite was found amongst widespread severe tissue damage which confirms the dolphin died of toxoplasmosis.”
DOC is still awaiting results from genetic testing to determine whether this is a Māui or Hector’s dolphin. It is impossible to tell the difference between the two sub-species without genetic analysis, as they are otherwise identical, the Department said in a statement.
If the animal is a Māui dolphin, it will be the first confirmed Māui dolphin death from toxoplasmosis since 2010.
Cats and their faeces are a known vector for the disease. Cats are the only animals in which the parasite can sexually reproduce, the oocysts (eggs) of the parasite are spread into the environment in the cat’s faeces and dispersed via rainwater and wastewater, which eventually reaches the sea.
The dolphins likely become infected when they eat prey which have ingested oocysts, allowing the disease to take hold.
Toxoplasmosis is a cause of death for marine mammals around the world.
Ms Hillock reiterated DOC’s call to the public to report any dead Māui or Hector’s dolphins as soon as possible, as this gives the best opportunity for valuable necropsy and science to be carried out to learn more about the dolphins.