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.
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.
Species of Cryptosporidium and Giardia can infect humans and wildlife and have the potential to be transmitted between these 2 groups; yet, very little is known about these protozoans in marine wildlife. Feces of river otters (Lontra canadensis), a common marine wildlife species in the Puget Sound Georgia Basin, were examined for species of Cryptosporidium and Giardia to determine their role in the epidemiology of these pathogens. Using ZnSO4 flotation and immunomagnetic separation, followed by direct immunofluorescent antibody detection (IMS/DFA), we identified Cryptosporidium sp. oocysts in 9 fecal samples from 6 locations and Giardia sp. cysts in 11 fecal samples from 7 locations. The putative risk factors of proximate human population and degree of anthropogenic shoreline modification were not associated with the detection of Cryptosporidium or Giardia spp. in river otter feces. Amplification of DNA from the IMS/DFA slide scrapings was successful for 1 sample containing > 500 Cryptosporidium sp. oocysts. Sequences from the Cryptosporidium 18S rRNA and the COWP loci were most similar to the ferret Cryptosporidium sp. genotype. River otters could serve as reservoirs for Cryptosporidium and Giardia species in marine ecosystems. More work is needed to better understand the zoonotic potential of the genotypes they carry as well as their implications for river otter health.
University of California, Davis, Wildlife Health Center, Orcas Island Office, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, 1016 Deer Harbor Road, Eastsound, Washington 98245, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
The investigation of diseases of free-ranging river otters (Lontra canadensis) is a primary conservation priority for this species; however, very little is known about diseases of river otters that forage in marine environments. To identify and better understand pathogens that could be important to marine-foraging river otters, other wildlife species, domestic animals, and humans and to determine if proximity to human population could be a factor in disease exposure, serum samples from 55 free-ranging marine-foraging river otters were tested for antibodies to selected pathogens. Thirty-five animals were captured in Prince William Sound, Alaska (USA), an area of low human density, and 20 were captured in the San Juan Islands, Washington State (USA), an area characterized by higher human density. Of 40 river otters tested by indirect immunofluorescent antibody test, 17.5% were seropositive (titer > or =320) for Toxoplasma gondii. All positive animals came from Washington. Of 35 river otters tested for antibodies to Leptospira interrogans using the microscopic agglutination test, 10 of 20 (50%) from Washington were seropositive (titer > or =200). None of the 15 tested animals from Alaska were positive. Antibodies to Neospora caninum (n=40), Sarcocystis neurona (n=40), Brucella abortus (n=55), avian influenza (n=40), canine distemper virus (n=55), phocine distemper virus (n=55), dolphin morbillivirus (n=55), porpoise morbillivirus (n=55), and Aleutian disease parvovirus (n=46) were not detected. Identifying exposure to T. gondii and L. interrogans in otters from Washington State but not in otters from Alaska suggests that living proximal to higher human density and its associated agricultural activities, domestic animals, and rodent populations could enhance river otter exposure to these pathogens.
Ranch-reared mink (Mustela vison) were used as a model in an experimental trial to investigate the potential effects of exposure to two petroleum products on sea otters (Enhydra lutris). Mink were exposed either dermally on one occasion 60 days prior to breeding or via low level contamination of their diets daily from 60 days prior to breeding (January 1994) until weaning of kits (June 1994). For dermal exposure, we placed mink in either a slick of Alaskan North Slope crude oil (n = 24) or bunker C fuel oil (n = 24) on sea water or sea water alone (n = 10) for 1 min. For dietary exposure, we fed mink rations containing 500 ppm of either Alaskan North Slope crude oil (n = 24) or bunker C fuel oil (n = 24; control, n = 15). The number of liveborn kits did not differ significantly among mink exposed dermally (5.0 kits/female for crude oil and 6.5 kits/female for bunker C fuel oil) and unexposed controls (5.3 kits/female). However, only 2.3 and 0.7 kits were produced per female for those exposed through the diet to crude oil and bunker C fuel oil, respectively. Females with reduced reproductive success had no clinical signs of toxicosis or behavioral abnormalities. In addition, kits of females exposed through the diet had poor survival to weaning. Once mature, kits born to females exposed to bunker C fuel oil in the diet had significantly reduced reproductive success (3.4 kits/female) although their only exposure to the petroleum products was in utero or during nursing. Therefore, it is possible that sea otter populations consuming contaminated food sources or colonizing previously oiled habitats will have reduced reproductive success.
Levels of blood haptoglobin (Hp) and interleukin-6 immunoreactive protein (IL-6 ir) were significantly elevated in river otters (Lutra canadensis) inhabiting oiled areas of Prince William Sound, Alaska (USA) following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. By May and June 1992, however, such differences were not apparent. Mean body mass of otters, adjusted for sex, age-class, and total length with analysis of covariance, differed between oiled and non-oiled areas from 1990 to 1992, but were nearly identical by May and June 1992. We propose that river otters may be recovering from chronic effects that we observed in 1990 and 1991 following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, but further research is necessary to test this hypothesis.