The southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) population in California (USA) and the Alaskan sea otter (E. lutris kenyoni) population in the Aleutian Islands (USA) chain have recently declined. In order to evaluate disease as a contributing factor to the declines, health assessments of these two sea otter populations were conducted by evaluating hematologic and/or serum biochemical values and exposure to six marine and terrestrial pathogens using blood collected during ongoing studies from 1995 through 2000. Samples from 72 free-ranging Alaskan, 78 free-ranging southern, and (for pathogen exposure only) 41 debilitated southern sea otters in rehabilitation facilities were evaluated and compared to investigate regional differences. Serum chemistry and hematology values did not indicate a specific disease process as a cause for the declines. Statistically significant differences were found between free-ranging adult southern and Alaskan population mean serum levels of creatinine kinase, alkaline phosphatase, alanine aminotransferase, aspartate aminotransferase, calcium, cholesterol, creatinine, glucose, phosphorous, total bilirubin, blood urea nitrogen, and sodium. These were likely due to varying parasite loads, contaminant exposures, and physiologic or nutrition statuses. No free-ranging sea otters had signs of disease at capture, and prevalences of exposure to calicivirus, Brucella spp., and Leptospira spp. were low. The high prevalence (35%) of antibodies to Toxoplasma gondii in free-ranging southern sea otters, lack of antibodies to this parasite in Alaskan sea otters, and the pathogen's propensity to cause mortality in southern sea otters suggests that this parasite may be important to sea otter population dynamics in California but not in Alaska. The evidence for exposure to pathogens of public health importance (e.g., Leptospira spp., T. gondii) in the southern sea otter population, and the naïveté of both populations to other pathogens (e.g., morbillivirus and Coccidiodes immitis) may have important implications for their management and recovery.
As part of tagging and ecologic research efforts in 1997 and 1998, apparently healthy sea otters of four age-sex classes in six locations in Alaska and three in California were sampled for persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and other chemicals of ecologic or environmental concern (COECs). Published techniques for the detection of POPs (specifically ?polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs], ?DDTs, ?hexachlorocyclohexanes [HCHs], ?polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAHs], ?chlordanes [CHLs], hexachlorobenzene [HCB], dieldrin, and mirex) in the tissue of dead otters were modified for use with serum from live sea otters. Toxic equivalencies (TEQs) were calculated for POPs with proven bioactivity. Strong location effects were seen for most POPs and COECs; sea otters in California generally showed higher mean concentrations than those in Alaska. Differences in contaminant concentrations were detected among age and sex classes, with high levels frequently observed in subadults. Very high levels of ?DDT were detected in male sea otters in Elkhorn Slough, California, where strong freshwater outflow from agricultural areas occurs seasonally. All contaminants except mirex differed among Alaskan locations; only ?DDT, HCB, and chlorpyrifos differed within California. High levels of ?PCB (particularly larger, more persistent congeners) were detected at two locations in Alaska where associations between elevated PCBs and military activity have been established, while higher PCB levels were found at all three locations in California where no point source of PCBs has been identified. Although POP and COEC concentrations in blood may be less likely to reflect total body burden, concentrations in blood of healthy animals may be more biologically relevant and less influenced by state of nutrition or perimortem factors than other tissues routinely sampled.