Since 2002, an increased number of northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) from southcentral Alaska have been reported to be dying due to endocarditis and/or septicemia with infection by Streptococcus infantarius subsp. coli. Bartonella spp. DNA was also detected in northern sea otters as part of mortality investigations during this unusual mortality event (UME) in Kachemak Bay, Alaska. To evaluate the extent of exposure to Bartonella spp. in sea otters, sera collected from necropsied and live-captured northern sea otters, as well as necropsied southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) unaffected by the UME, were analyzed using an immunofluorescent antibody assay. Antibodies against Bartonella spp. were detected in sera from 50% of necropsied and 34% of presumed healthy, live-captured northern sea otters and in 16% of necropsied southern sea otters. The majority of sea otters with reactive sera were seropositive for B. washoensis, with antibody titers ranging from 1:64 to 1:256. Bartonella spp. antibodies were especially common in adult northern sea otters, both free-living (49%) and necropsied (62%). Adult stranded northern sea otters that died from infectious causes, such as opportunistic bacterial infections, were 27 times more likely to be Bartonella seropositive than adult stranded northern sea otters that died from noninfectious causes (p
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.
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.
River otters (Lontra canadensis) were extirpated from much of their historic distribution because of exposure to pollution and urbanization, resulting in expansive reintroduction programmes that continue today for this and other species of otters worldwide. Bioaccumulation of toxins negatively affects fecundity among mustelids, but high vagility and different dispersal distances between genders may permit otter populations to recover from extirpation caused by localized environmental pollution. Without understanding the influence of factors such as social structure and sex-biased dispersal on genetic variation and gene flow among populations, effects of local extirpation and the potential for natural recolonization (i.e. the need for translocations) cannot be assessed. We studied gene flow among seven study areas for river otters (n = 110 otters) inhabiting marine environments in Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA. Using nine DNA microsatellite markers and assignment tests, we calculated immigration rates and dispersal distances and tested for isolation by distance. In addition, we radiotracked 55 individuals in three areas to determine characteristics of dispersal. Gender differences in sociality and spatial relationships resulted in different dispersal distances. Male river otters had greater gene flow among close populations (within 16-30 km) mostly via breeding dispersal, but both genders exhibited an equal, low probability of natal dispersal; and some females dispersed 60-90 km. These data, obtained in a coastal environment without anthropogenic barriers to dispersal (e.g. habitat fragmentation or urbanization), may serve as baseline data for predicting dispersal under optimal conditions. Our data may indicate that natural recolonization of coastal river otters following local extirpation could be a slow process because of low dispersal among females, and recolonization may be substantially delayed unless viable populations occurred nearby. Because of significant isolation by distance for male otters and low gene flow for females, translocations should be undertaken with caution to help preserve genetic diversity in this species.
Despite the growth in knowledge about the effects of a warming Arctic on its cold-adapted species, the mechanisms by which these changes affect animal populations remain poorly understood. Increasing temperatures, declining sea ice and altered wind and precipitation patterns all may affect the fitness and abundance of species through multiple direct and indirect pathways. Here we demonstrate previously unknown effects of rain-on-snow (ROS) events, winter precipitation, and ice tidal surges on the Arctic's largest land mammal. Using novel field data across seven years and three Alaskan and Russian sites, we show arrested skeletal growth in juvenile muskoxen resulting from unusually dry winter conditions and gestational ROS events, with the inhibitory effects on growth from ROS events lasting up to three years post-partum. Further, we describe the simultaneous entombment of 52 muskoxen in ice during a Chukchi Sea winter tsunami (ivuniq in Iñupiat), and link rapid freezing to entrapment of Arctic whales and otters. Our results illustrate how once unusual, but increasingly frequent Arctic weather events affect some cold-adapted mammals, and suggest that an understanding of species responses to a changing Arctic can be enhanced by coalescing groundwork, rare events, and insights from local people.
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.
Organotin compounds (OTs) including mono- to tri-butyltins, -phenyltins, and -octyltins were determined in the liver of adult sea otters (Enhydra lutris) found dead along the coasts of California, Washington, and Alaska in the USA and Kamchatka, Russia. Total concentrations of OTs in sea otters from California ranged from 34 to 4100ng/g on a wet weight basis. The order of concentrations of OTs in sea otters was total butyltins>total octyltins> or = total phenyltins. Elevated concentrations of butyltins (BTs) were found in some otters classified under 'infectious-disease' mortality category. Concentrations of BTs in few of these otters were close to or above the threshold levels for adverse health effects. Total butyltin concentrations decreased significantly in the livers of California sea otters since the 1990s. Based on the concentrations of organotins in sea otters collected from 1992 to 2002, the half-lives of tributyltin and total butyltins in sea otters were estimated to be approximately three years.
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.