Marine Mammals

Epidemiology, Population Health & Pathology

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Principal Investigator

Adam Schaefer, M.P.H.



Closing the Loop between Wildlife and Human Health

The primary focus of Harbor Branch population health and epidemiology research is the interplay of marine mammal, human, and environmental health, as embodied in the One Health concept.  The resulting research on marine mammal health, infectious disease and environmental epidemiology has illustrated the role of marine species as sentinel organisms for human and ecosystem health. Bolstered with staff expertise in epidemiology study design, statistical analysis and data management in both wildlife and human research, the program recently produced one of the pioneering studies connecting animal and human health, which demonstrated elevated mercury concentrations in dolphins and humans who consume fish from Florida’s Indian River Lagoon.

Sentinel Species Health Assessments

Our previous research has identified human health hazards such as mercury, organic contaminants and antibiotic resistance in our local environment. This research includes the integration of environmental data to understand how natural and anthropogenic changes to the ecosystem impact the health of keystone species. We collect samples from wild dolphins, sharks, rays and penguins for clinical pathology parameters or hematology and serum chemistry, contaminant concentrations, viral screening, microbiology/antibiotic resistance and immunology from both live and deceased individuals for this research. 








Mercury and Environmental Exposures among Pregnant Womenmercury

We have partnered with local physicians to sample pregnant Florida residents to assess prenatal exposure to mercury via seafood consumption. Mercury is a well-known neurotoxicant with significant health risks to the unborn fetus, Additional data on birth outcomes, knowledge regarding risks from exposure to mercury and potential other environmental hazards are collected to create a longterm study cohort.


Exposure to Harmful Algal Bloom Toxins among Humans and Wildlife


Collaborations to measure bloom toxins in dolphins and sharks is ongoing. In addition, we are expanding the assessment to look at human ER visits during algal blooms and working with the CDC to measure HAB toxin concentrations in locally exposed residents when blooms are present.



The Marine Environment and Antibiotic Resistance: A Global Threat

Antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” like MRSA pose one of the most pressing public health threats of our time. The emergence of resistance among common pathogens is driven by many factors and the marine environment plays an important role in the proliferation. Our work involves surveillance and analysis of data on the prevalence and patterns of antibiotic-resistant organisms from dolphins, sharks, rays and combines it with environmental data to assess natural and anthropogenic stressors.


Lacaziosis: A Fungal Disease of Dolphins and Humans

LacaziosisA rare fungal disease only found in humans and dolphins is endemic to southern IRL dolphins. We recently characterized a new pathogen as the cause of the dolphin disease.  New goals include sequencing the genome, finding the environmental reservoirs of this pathogen, and establishing the mechanisms of transmission to humans and dolphins. Investigations into the dolphin disease will provide further insight into the human disease.


  Population Health of African Penguinspenguin

After a steady decline in seabird populations worldwide, a first-of-its-kind wild penguin health assessment in South Africa was started by SANCCOB and multiple research partners to understand the overall health and disease prevalence in populations. Surveillance of these birds includes the collection of blood and guano samples, ecto-parasites and health values from wild and rehabilitated penguins. The Harbor Branch Epidemiology program collaborates to complete multiple ongoing objectives in order to understand health and infectious diseases in this endangered marine bird.