Tissue perforation and penetration by dorsal fin spines of spotted ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei) were responsible for the death of seven harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) in Washington State (USA) between 2006 and 2011. In six animals, necropsy revealed spines or spine parts that had perforated the esophagus or stomach and migrated into vital tissues, resulting in hemothorax, pneumothorax, pleuritis, and peritonitis. In a seventh case, a ratfish spine was recovered from the mouth of a harbor seal euthanized due to clinical symptoms of encephalitis. Gross examination revealed an abscess within the left cerebrum, which was attributed to direct extension of inflammatory infiltrate associated with the ratfish spine. Between 2009 and 2011, spotted ratfish spines were also recovered from the head or neck region of three Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) and one California sea lion (Zalophus californianus). Ratfish-related trauma appears to be a novel mortality factor for harbor seals in Washington State and could be related to increased ratfish abundance and a shifting prey base for harbor seals.
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Vol. 48 • No. 4