Domoic acid exposure and associated clinical signs and histopathology in Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii)

Elizabeth A. McHuron, Denise J. Greig, Kathleen M. Colegrove, Michelle Fleetwood, Terry R. Spraker, Frances M.D. Gulland, James T. Harvey, Kathi A. Lefebvre, Elizabeth R. Frame

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Domoic acid (DA) is a potent neurotoxin that has caused strandings and mortality of seabirds and marine mammals off the California coast. Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) are an abundant, nearshore species in California; however, DA exposure and toxicosis have not been documented for harbor seals in this region. To investigate DA exposure in harbor seals, samples were collected from free-ranging and stranded seals off California to assess exposure, clinical signs of toxicosis, and brain lesions in harbor seals exposed to DA. Domoic acid was detected in 65% (17/26) of urine samples collected from apparently healthy free-ranging seals, with concentrations of 0.4-11.7. ng/ml. Domoic acid also was detected in feces (2.4-2887. ng/g), stomach contents (1.4. ng/g; stranded only), milk (2.2. ng/ml; stranded only), amniotic fluid (9.7. ng/ml; free-ranging only), fetal meconium (14.6-39.8. ng/g), and fetal urine (2.0-10.2. ng/ml). Clinical signs indicative of DA toxicosis were observed in two live-stranded seals, and included disorientation, seizures, and uncoordinated movements. Histopathology revealed the presence of brain lesions consistent with DA toxicosis in two live-stranded seals, and one free-ranging seal that died during capture. Results indicated that harbor seals were exposed to DA, exhibited clinical signs and histological lesions associated with DA exposure, and that pups were exposed to DA in utero and during lactation via milk. Future investigation is required to determine the magnitude of impact that DA has on the health and mortality of harbor seals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)28-33
Number of pages6
JournalHarmful Algae
StatePublished - Mar 2013


  • Domoic acid
  • Harmful algal bloom
  • Mortality
  • Neurological signs
  • Phoca vitulina
  • Pseudo-nitzschia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science
  • Plant Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Domoic acid exposure and associated clinical signs and histopathology in Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii)'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this