How A Tiny Parasite Has Become The Biggest Threat To Endangered Monk Seals

Toxoplasmosis is the latest threat facing the United States' most endangered marine mammal.

The parasite Toxoplasma gondii is smaller than a single dust mite burrowing in your mattress. In fact, it’s about the same size as the excrement of a dust mite. But don’t be fooled by size—these microscopic, single-cell organisms are surprisingly hardy and exceedingly destructive. Their eggs—known as oocysts—can survive in soil, smeared onto foliage, and floating in seawater for months up to years at a time. Just one is enough to kill an animal as big as a dolphin, sea otter or Beluga whale.

Now, they’re taking down the country’s most endangered marine mammal: the Hawaiian monk seal.

Last month, Michelle Barbieri, lead veterinarian with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) announced the deaths of three of Hawai`i’s official state mammal due to toxoplasmosis, a disease triggered by the tiny parasite. The total of known deaths to the species due to toxo is now 11—a significant tally, given that just 300 animals total reside in the main Hawaiian Islands.

Photo: USFWS/Wikimedia Commons

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