Epidemiological pattern of tattoo skin disease: a potential general health indicator for cetaceans

Marie-Françoise Van Bressem, Koen Van Waerebeek, Ana Paula Di Beneditto, Mónica Echegaray, Tilen Genov, Julio Reyes, Fernando Felix, Raquel Gaspar, Renata Ramos, Vic Peddemors, Gian Paolo Sanino, Ursula Siebert, Francisco Javier Aznar, Juan Antonio Raga, Paul D. Jepson, Pádraig Duignana, Rob Deaville, Leonardo Flach, Francisco Viddi, John R. Baker

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    52 Citations (Scopus)


    The presence of tattoo skin disease (TSD) was examined in 1392 free-ranging and dead odontocetes comprising 17 species from the Americas, Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Greenland. We investigated whether TSD prevalence varied with sex, age and health status. TSD was encountered in cetaceans from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans as well as in those from the North, Mediterranean and Tasman Seas. No clear patterns related to geography and host phylogeny were detected, except that prevalence of TSD in juveniles and, in 2 species (dusky dolphin Lagenorhynchus obscurus and Burmeister's porpoise Phocoena spinipinnis), in adults was remarkably high in samples from Peru. Environmental factors and virus properties may be responsible for this finding. Sex did not significantly influence TSD prevalence except in the case of Peruvian P. spinipinnis. Generally, there was a pattern of TSD increase in juveniles compared to calves, attributed to the loss of maternal immunity. Also, in most samples, juveniles seemed to have a higher probability of suffering TSD than adults, presumably because more adults had acquired active immunity following infection. This holo-endemic pattern was inverted in poor health short-beaked common dolphins Delphinus delphis and harbour porpoises Phocoena phocoena from the British Isles, and in Chilean dolphins Cephalorhynchus eutropia from Patagonia, where adults showed a higher TSD prevalence than juveniles. Very large tattoos were seen in some adult odontocetes from the SE Pacific, NE Atlantic and Portugal's Sado Estuary, which suggest impaired immune response. The epidemiological pattern of TSD may be an indicator of cetacean population health.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)225-237
    Number of pages13
    JournalDiseases of Aquatic Organisms
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2009


    • Tattoo skin disease
    • Poxviruses
    • Cetaceans
    • Epidemiology
    • Health status


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