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
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.
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.
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.
The spermatic ducts (vasa deferentia) of 235 otters (Lutra lutra) found dead between 1999 and 2012 in Sweden were examined for presence of paraductular cysts. Single or multiple elongated uni- or bilateral cysts parallel to the spermatic duct were noted in 72% of the examined males. The cysts were adjacent to, but did not communicate with the lumen of the spermatic duct, and were usually located within a few centimeters of the testis and epididymis. The cysts are proposed to be congenital Müllerian duct remnants. Other morphologic abnormalities in the reproductive organs were not noted within this study. Possible causes of the incomplete regression of the embryonic female gonadal duct are exposure to environmental contaminants such as elevated concentrations of estrogen-like compounds (endocrine disrupting chemicals), inbreeding, or a naturally occurring anatomic defect. No obvious geographical pattern was observed for otters with or without cysts. This is the first study and description of cysts on the spermatic duct in otters.
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.
Effects of climate change on animal behavior and cascading ecosystem responses are rarely evaluated. In coastal Alaska, social river otters (Lontra Canadensis), largely males, cooperatively forage on schooling fish and use latrine sites to communicate group associations and dominance. Conversely, solitary otters, mainly females, feed on intertidal-demersal fish and display mutual avoidance via scent marking. This behavioral variability creates "hotspots" of nutrient deposition and affects plant productivity and diversity on the terrestrial landscape. Because the abundance of schooling pelagic fish is predicted to decline with climate change, we developed a spatially-explicit individual-based model (IBM) of otter behavior and tested six scenarios based on potential shifts to distribution patterns of schooling fish. Emergent patterns from the IBM closely mimicked observed otter behavior and landscape use in the absence of explicit rules of intraspecific attraction or repulsion. Model results were most sensitive to rules regarding spatial memory and activity state following an encounter with a fish school. With declining availability of schooling fish, the number of social groups and the time simulated otters spent in the company of conspecifics declined. Concurrently, model results suggested an elevation of defecation rate, a 25% increase in nitrogen transport to the terrestrial landscape, and significant changes to the spatial distribution of "hotspots" with declines in schooling fish availability. However, reductions in availability of schooling fish could lead to declines in otter density over time.
Small superficially ulcerated skin lesions were observed between October 2009 and September 2011 during captive care of two orphaned sea otter pups: one northern (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) in Alaska and one southern (Enhydra lutris nereis) in California. Inclusions consistent with poxviral infection were diagnosed by histopathology in both cases. Virions consistent with poxvirus virions were seen on electron microscopy in the northern sea otter, and the virus was successfully propagated in cell culture. DNA extraction, pan-chordopoxviral PCR amplification, and sequencing of the DNA-dependent DNA polymerase gene revealed that both cases were caused by a novel AT-rich poxvirus. Bayesian and maximum likelihood phylogenetic analyses found that the virus is divergent from other known poxviruses at a level consistent with a novel genus. These cases were self-limiting and did not appear to be associated with systemic illness. To our knowledge, this is the first report of a poxvirus in a mustelid species. The source of this virus, mode of transmission, zoonotic potential, and biological significance are undetermined.
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.