After the bite: Bacterial transmission from grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) to harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena)

Maarten J. Gilbert, Lonneke L. IJsseldijk, Ana Rubio-García, Andrea Gröne, Birgitta Duim, John Rossen, Aldert L. Zomer, Jaap A. Wagenaar*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Recent population growth of the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) and common seal (Phoca vitulina) in the North Sea has increased potential interaction between these species. Grey seals are known to attack harbour porpoises. Some harbour porpoises survive initially, but succumb eventually, often showing severely infected skin lesions. Bacteria transferred from the grey seal oral cavity may be involved in these infections and eventual death of the animal. In humans, seal bites are known to cause severe infections. In this study, a 16S rRNA-based microbiome sequencing approach is used to identify the oral bacterial diversity in harbour porpoises, grey seals and common seals; detect the potential transfer of bacteria from grey seals to harbour porpoises by biting and provide insights in the bacteria with zoonotic potential present in the seal oral cavity. β-diversity analysis showed that 12.9% (4/31) of the harbour porpoise skin lesion microbiomes resembled seal oral microbiomes, while most of the other skin lesion microbiomes also showed seal-associated bacterial species, including potential pathogens. In conclusion, this study shows that bacterial transmission from grey seals to harbour porpoises by biting is highly likely and that seal oral cavities harbour many bacterial pathogens with zoonotic potential.

Original languageEnglish
Article number192079
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 13 May 2020


  • Bacterial transmission
  • Common seal
  • Grey seal
  • Harbour porpoise
  • Microbiome


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