Algal toxin impairs sea lion memory and hippocampal connectivity, with implications for strandings

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Science  18 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6267, pp. 1545-1547
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac5675

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Red tides make dinner hard to find

Domoic acid (DA) is a neurotoxin produced by marine algae. When present in large amounts, it is harmful to marine organisms and to humans. Cook et al. tested California sea lions being treated at a marine mammal rescue facility. Animals that had evidence of exposure to DA had lesions in their hippocampus and displayed reduced performance on spatial memory tasks. Because such tasks are essential to foraging in a marine environment, increasing exposure to DA may be contributing to increasing sea lion strandings.

Science, this issue p. 1545


Domoic acid (DA) is a naturally occurring neurotoxin known to harm marine animals. DA-producing algal blooms are increasing in size and frequency. Although chronic exposure is known to produce brain lesions, the influence of DA toxicosis on behavior in wild animals is unknown. We showed, in a large sample of wild sea lions, that spatial memory deficits are predicted by the extent of right dorsal hippocampal lesions related to natural exposure to DA and that exposure also disrupts hippocampal-thalamic brain networks. Because sea lions are dynamic foragers that rely on flexible navigation, impaired spatial memory may affect survival in the wild.

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