Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) cause toxicity effects including endocrine dysfunction, developmental defects, and neoplasia, in a wide range of species. Species which dominate the upper trophic level have particular vulnerability to bioaccumulative toxic effects caused by environmental pollutants. For the Bass Strait food web, the Australian fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) is an important sentinel species for ecosystem health.
An alopecia syndrome has been recognized at high prevalence (up to 50% of juvenile females) in Australian fur seals at Lady Julia Percy Island (LJP), Victoria, an important breeding site for this species. Alopecic seals are only occasionally seen at other colonies. Previous investigations suggest causality could be due to a pollutant acting as an endocrine analogue. The alopecic syndrome has significance for thermoregulation and is a likely risk factor for mortality.
In order to investigate whether POPs are associated with endocrine disruption and alopecia, we compare POP’s concentrations in the fur of alopecic (n=50) and non-alopecic (n=51) juvenile seals sampled at LJP. Fur samples collected from pups at LJP and four other colonies in Victoria and Tasmania will serve as baseline colonies for comparison.
The concentration of selected POPs including Dioxin/Furans (PCDD/Fs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and Perfluoralkyl compounds was determined in fur using High Resolution Mass Spectrometry or Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry. Results to date indicate noteworthy levels of PCBs and PCDD/Fs in pup samples from Seal Rocks. Detection of POPs in these samples suggests that pinniped pups are at risk of POPs mediated toxicity in-utero, a particularly susceptible developmental stage.
We discuss the significance of POPs concentrations in relation to the causality of alopecia and the conservation management of the marine ecosystem, and assess the usefulness of fur as a non-invasive biomarker to assess POPs exposure in this sentinel species.