CHICAGO - A parasite that is found in cats and can cause brain disease, blindness and miscarriage in people has been found for the first time in Arctic beluga whales, scientists said Thursday.
Pregnant women are often warned to avoid changing kitty litter in order to stay clear of the parasite, Toxoplasma gondii.
Its emergence in western Arctic beluga has raised concerns about the indigenous Inuit people who eat whale meat as part of their traditional diet and may be exposed to new health risks.
"This common parasite in the lower 48 (U.S. states) is now emerging in the Arctic and we found it for the first time in a population of western Arctic beluga," said Michael Grigg, a molecular parasitologist with the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
"This is a parasite that is secreted by cats so what is it doing in the Arctic and why now is it in the beluga? And that is what we are starting to investigate. How did it get there?"
Grigg told reporters at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago that the rise in the number of cats worldwide is likely increasing the risks of the parasite's transmission.
The beluga are apparently suffering only mild inflammation from the infection, but scientists can only judge that based on what they see, and there are concerns that if the parasite is causing deadly infections, the toll on marine mammals may go unseen in the vast Arctic.
The regular travels of the belugas, from Canadian waters in the summer and back to Russian waters in the winter, mean that the parasites could get picked up anywhere along the route, said researcher Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist with the British Columbia Agriculture Ministry.
Some experts are concerned that global warming could be causing the spread of new diseases in the world's oceans, and that the thawing of ice in the Arctic has removed a key barrier, allowing pathogens to move into new areas and infect vulnerable creatures.
"The animals themselves are telling us what is going on in the ecosystem, they are sending that message," said Sue Moore, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We have to get better at interpreting it and bringing together the science of marine mammal health and marine mammal ecology."