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Prevalence of skull pathologies in European harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) during 1981–2014

Journal article
Authors Cino Pertold
Lasse Fast Jensen
Aage Kristian Olsen Alstrup
Ole Lajord Munk
Trine Bæk Pedersen
Christian Sonne
Rune Dietz
Tobias Daugaard-Petersen
Karin C. Harding
Trine Hammer Jensen
Published in Mammal Research
Volume 63
Issue 1
Pages 55–63
ISSN 2199-2401
Publication year 2018
Published at Linnaeus Centre for Marine Evolutionary Biology (CEMEB)
Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Pages 55–63
Language en
Keywords Marine mammals, harbour seal, bone mineral density, environmental contaminants, skull morphology
Subject categories Ecology, Morphology


Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) inhabit the seas surrounding Denmark and are an important top predator in the marine food chain. This trophic position exposes them to environmental contaminants with disease epi- demics and hunting being additional threats to this popu- lation. It is therefore important to study how environmen- tal pollution at the current order of magnitude affects the health of the population. Earlier studies have shown that occurrence of periodontitis could be linked to the amount of pollution the seals were subjected to. In order to inves- tigate this further, 380 skulls and 141 mandibles of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) from the Wadden Sea, the Limfjord, and Kattegat collected during the period 1970–2014 were examined. The skulls were examined for pathological le- sions. The Hounsfield Units (HU) which are correlated to the bone mineral density (BMD) were measured in a sub- sample (n= 34) using CT scans. The macroscopic examination revealed (with the exception of the Swedish part of Kattegat) a significant increase of pathological lesions over the study period of 1981–2014. The exami- nation of HU showed that median HU measured at mul- tiple sites was highest in the healthy skulls compared to the skulls with one or more of the lesions. A discriminant analysis allowed high discriminatory capacity to separate healthy skulls from the skulls with pathologies, simply by the utilization of the HU data. Former studies of BMD in marine mammals have shown that exposure to environ- mental chemicals alter BMD and cause periodontitis. The present study, based on temporal and spatial trends in BMD, confirms the results of previous studies Prevalence of skull pathologies in European harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) during 1981–2014 (PDF Download Available). Available from: [accessed Dec 15 2017].

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