Heterogeneities in transmission among hosts can be very important in shaping infectious disease dynamics. In mammals with strong social organization, such heterogeneities are often structured by functional stage: juveniles, subadults and adults. We investigate the importance of such stage-related heterogeneities in shaping the 2002 phocine distemper virus (PDV) outbreak in the Dutch Wadden Sea, when more than 40 per cent of the harbour seals were killed. We do this by comparing the statistical fit of a hierarchy of models with varying transmission complexity: homogeneous versus heterogeneous mixing and density- versus frequency-dependent transmission. We use the stranding data as a proxy for incidence and use Poisson likelihoods to estimate the 'who acquires infection from whom' (WAIFW) matrix. Statistically, the model with strong heterogeneous mixing and density-dependent transmission was found to best describe the transmission dynamics. However, patterns of incidence support a model of frequency-dependent transmission among adults and juveniles. Based on the maximum-likelihood WAIFW matrix estimates, we use the next-generation formalism to calculate an R(0) between 2 and 2.5 for the Dutch 2002 PDV epidemic.