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BMC Vet Res. 2018 May 2;14(1):150. doi: 10.1186/s12917-018-1473-5.

Osteoarthritis of the temporomandibular joint in the Eastern Atlantic harbour seal (Phoca vitulina vitulina) from the German North Sea: a study of the lesions seen in dry bone.

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Department of Biology, University of Hildesheim, Universitätsplatz 1, 31141, Hildesheim, Germany.
Department of Biology, University of Hildesheim, Universitätsplatz 1, 31141, Hildesheim, Germany.



Pathological changes and resulting functional impairment of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) can substantially affect physical condition, morbidity, and mortality of wildlife species. Analysis of TMJ disorders is therefore of interest for the characterization of the health status of populations of wild mammals. This paper, for the first time, analyses the prevalence of TMJ osteoarthritis (TMJ-OA) and the spectrum of osteoarthritic bone lesions of the TMJ in the Eastern Atlantic harbour seal (Phoca vitulina vitulina), applying a standardized scoring system. Dry skulls of 1872 individuals from the German North Sea, collected between 1961 and 1994, were examined for lesions consistent with a diagnosis of TMJ-OA. Of the skulls, 913 (48.8%) were from male, 959 (51.2%) from female seals, with age at death ranging from 2 weeks to 25 years. Possible associations of TMJ-OA with dental or periodontal disorders were also analysed.


Lesions consistent with TMJ-OA were found in 963 (53.9%) of the 1787 juvenile/subadult (5 weeks to 5 years of age) and adult (> 5 years) specimens, the condition mostly (95.0% of affected individuals) occurring in a bilateral fashion. Males were affected more frequently than females (p < 0.001), while lesion severity tended to be higher in females (p < 0.05). Severity of TMJ-OA lesions was positively correlated with age (p < 0.001). Lesion severity was also weakly positively correlated with the number of fractured teeth (p < 0.05) and of intravitally lost teeth (p < 0.01), when controlling for age at death as a confounder.


TMJ-OA is a common disorder in the Eastern Atlantic harbour seal. The more pronounced severity of the lesions in females compared to males is basically attributed to the higher average age of the female subsample. The causes underlying the high prevalence of TMJ-OA in the studied assemblage remain unknown. Most of the specimens (75.3%) analysed in the present study were found dead during the first phocine distemper virus epizootic in 1988. Therefore, it is assumed that, contrary to other museum collections, only little overrepresentation of pathological skeletal conditions is present in this death sample compared with the population from which it originated.


Harbour seal; Lesion scoring; Osteoarthritis; Temporomandibular joint; Wildlife disease

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