In DepthConservation Biology

A race to vaccinate rare seals

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Science  10 Jun 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6291, pp. 1265
DOI: 10.1126/science.352.6291.1265

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In Hawaii, biologists have launched an unusual conservation campaign: For the first time, they are attempting to vaccinate a wild population of seagoing mammals in order to protect the animals from a potentially devastating virus. The target is the Hawaiian monk seal, and it's a daunting task. Although monk seals are one of the world's most endangered marine mammals, they still number some 1300 individuals, scattered along the 2500-kilometer-long Hawaiian chain. For the vaccine to work, biologists must track down and give each animal two shots, weeks apart. But after years of studying ways to prevent an outbreak of phocine distemper virus, a major seal killer that biologists fear could cripple efforts to save monk seals from extinction, researchers are optimistic that they can make wildlife health history. "It's a fascinating test case," says conservation ecologist Andrew Dobson of Princeton University, who is not involved in the effort. "People are very interested in how it is going to work."

  • * on Oahu, in Hawaii