Fans of “The Walking Dead” know it doesn’t take much to start a species-ending apocalypse.
A bite. A scratch. A sneeze. One opportunity to pass a pathogen to someone else and the race toward extinction begins.
That fictional scenario is scary enough, but for some species the reality is even more terrifying—and more likely to happen sometime in the not-so-distant future.
Take the Hawaiian monk seal. Once hunted into near-extinction for their meat and fur in the 19th century, only a few hundred monk seals remained when they were finally protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1976. Intense conservation efforts increased that population to about 1,500 in the 1980s, but the seals still face a precarious recovery. The animals frequently die from entanglement with fishing gear and their population has shrunk to about 1,100 today.
|Hawaiian Monk seal mother and pup. NOAA photo|
This is not a theoretical danger.
Around the world, seals and other marine species have experienced several mass die-offs after exposure to morbilliviruses, a group of diseases that include canine distemper and the measles.
“The destructive force of a disease is comparable to nothing,” Littnan said. “There is no reason to believe that if morbillivirus comes and gets into monk seals, and this program isn’t in place, that it will be anything less than catastrophic.”
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