Infection with Brucella spp., long known as a cause of abortion, infertility, and reproductive loss in domestic livestock, has increasingly been documented in marine mammals over the past two decades. We report molecular evidence of Brucella infection in Asian sea otters (Enhydra lutris lutris). Brucella DNA was detected in 3 of 78 (4%) rectal swab samples collected between 2004 and 2006 on Bering Island, Russia. These 78 animals had previously been documented to have a Brucella seroprevalence of 28%, markedly higher than the prevalence documented in sea otters (Enhydra lutris) in North America. All of the DNA sequences amplified were identical to one or more previously isolated Brucella spp. including strains from both terrestrial and marine hosts. Phylogenetic analysis of this sequence suggested that one animal was shedding Brucella spp. DNA with a sequence matching a Brucella abortus strain, whereas two animals yielded a sequence matching a group of strains including isolates classified as Brucella pinnipedialis and Brucella melitensis. Our results highlight the diversity of Brucella spp. within a single sea otter population.
Histoplasmosis of local origin has not been reported in humans or wildlife in Alaska, and the disease has never been reported in a free-ranging marine mammal. In 2005 a northern sea otter (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) was found on Kodiak Island, Alaska, at 57° latitude north, far outside the known distribution of Histoplasma capsulatum. The animal died of disseminated histoplasmosis. Microorganisms consistent with Histoplasma sp. were observed on histopathology, and H. capsulatum was identified by PCR and sequencing. We suggest migratory seabirds or aerosol transmission through prevailing winds may have resulted in transmission to the sea otter.
1. Growth models for body mass and length were fitted to data collected from 1842 sea otters Enhydra lutris shot or live-captured throughout south-west Alaska between 1967 and 2004. Growth curves were constructed for each of two main year groups: 1967-71 when the population was at or near carrying capacity and 1992-97 when the population was in steep decline. Analyses of data collected from animals caught during 2004, when the population density was very low, were precluded by a small sample size and consequently only examined incidentally to the main growth curves. 2. Growth curves demonstrated a significant increase in body mass and body length at age in the 1990s. Asymptotic values of body mass were 12-18% higher in the 1990s than in the 1960s/70s, and asymptotic values for body length were 10-11% higher between the same periods. Data collected in 2004 suggest a continued increase in body size, with nearly all data points for mass and length falling significantly above the 1990s growth curves. 3. In addition to larger asymptotic values for mass and length, the rate of growth towards asymptotic values was more rapid in the 1990s than in the 1960s/70s: sea otters reached 95% of asymptotic body mass and body length 1-2 years earlier in the 1990s. 4. Body condition (as measured by the log mass/log length ratio) was significantly greater in males than in females. There was also an increasing trend from the 1960s/70s through 2004 despite much year-to-year variation. 5. Population age structures differed significantly between the 1960s/70s and the 1990s with the latter distribution skewed toward younger age classes (indicating an altered lx function) suggesting almost complete relaxation of age-dependent mortality patterns (i.e. those typical of food-limited populations). 6. This study spanned a period of time over which the population status of sea otters in the Aleutian archipelago declined precipitously from levels at or near equilibrium densities at some islands in the 1960s/70s to
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.
We evaluated effects of location (i.e., Jackpot Bay, a naturally contaminated site, and Herring Bay, reference site), diet as determined by stable isotopes, and age on mercury concentrations in individual river otters (Lontra canadensis) from Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA. We also investigated the effects of mercury accumulation on survival of river otters from these two locations. Our results indicated that mercury concentrations in fishes from Jackpot Bay were significantly higher than those in fishes from Herring Bay and those in pelagic fishes. In addition, a predominant intertidal fish diet in both areas influenced the accumulation of mercury concentrations in otters. Concentrations of mercury in fur of river otters from Jackpot Bay were significantly higher than those of animals from Herring Bay. Nonetheless, we did not detect significant differences in survival between otters inhabiting the two areas, suggesting that this natural contamination was not high enough to impair survival. Our ability to investigate the effects of various factors such as location, diet composition, and age on mercury accumulation and subsequent survival of individuals offers an example for a link between individual-based captive studies and population-level field investigations.
Studies following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska indicated that river otters (Lontra canadensis) from oiled regions displayed symptoms of degraded health, including reduced body weight. We examined the fate of ingested oil in the digestive tract and its effects on gut function in captive river otters. Fifteen wild-caught males were assigned to three groups, two of which were given weathered crude oil in food (i.e., control, 5 ppm day(-1), and 50 ppm day(-1)) under controlled conditions at the Alaska Sealife Center. Using glass beads as non-specific digesta markers and stable isotope analysis, we determined the effects of ingested oil on retention time and nutrient uptake. Our data indicated that oil ingestion reduced marker retention time when we controlled for activity and meal size. Fecal isotope ratios suggested that absorption of lipids in the oiled otters might have been affected by reduced retention time of food. In addition, a dilution model indicated that as much as 80% of ingested oil was not absorbed in high-dose animals. Thus, while the ingestion of large quantities of weathered crude oil appears to reduce absorption of oil hydrocarbons and may alleviate systemic effects, it may concurrently affect body condition by impacting digestive function.
Valvular endocarditis has been well described in northern sea otters Enhydra lutris kenyoni of Alaska and in many cases no cause has been identified. It is also one of the most common conditions observed in people with chronic Coxiella burnetii infection. Given the high levels of C. burnetii exposure in marine mammals distributed throughout the same geographic range as the northern sea otter, and the presence of valvular lesions seen in otters, the objective of this study was to determine the level of C. burnetii exposure in otters and investigate any association between exposure, infection and valvular disease in this species. Archived serum from 75 live captured, apparently healthy otters (25 from each of 3 stocks) and 30 dead otters were tested for C. burnetii antibodies by indirect florescent antibody assay (IFA). Archived bone marrow and heart valves were tested for C. burnetii DNA by real-time PCR (qPCR). Overall, the seroprevalence in live otters was 17%, with significantly more exposed animals in the south central (40%) stock relative to the southwest (8%) and southeast (4%). The seroprevalence of animals sampled post mortem was 27%, although none of the bone marrow or heart valve samples were positive by qPCR. Results of this study failed to demonstrate a significant association between C. burnetii infection and valvular endocarditis in sea otters; however, the differing seroprevalence suggests that exposure opportunities vary geographically.
Using museum data of adult specimens whose sex, age, and locality are known, we studied temporal and geographical body size trends among the otter, Lutra lutra, in Norway. We found that body size of the otters increased during the last quarter of the twentieth century, and suggest that this trend is related to increased food availability from fish farming and possibly also to energy saving due to elevated sea temperatures. Birth year and death year explained 38.8 and 43.5%, respectively, of the variation in body size. Body size of otters was positively related to latitude, thus conforming to Bergmann's rule.
Clinical and pathological observations of a naturally occurring disease in a British wild otter (Lutra lutra) are reported. Systemic lymphoreticular proliferative changes with plasmacytosis, glomerulonephritis, arteritis and biliary hyperplasia closely resembled the pathological changes in Aleutian disease of mink (Mustela vison). Feral mink provided a possible source of infection.