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.
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.
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.
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.
We use age distributions of sea otters (Enhydra lutris) found dead on beaches of western Prince William Sound, Alaska, between 1976 and 1998 in conjunction with time-varying demographic models to test for lingering effects from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Our results show that sea otters in this area had decreased survival rates in the years following the spill and that the effects of the spill on annual survival increased rather than dissipated for older animals. Otters born after the 1989 spill were affected less than those alive in March 1989, but do show continuing negative effects through 1998. Population-wide effects of the spill appear to have slowly dissipated through time, due largely to the loss of cohorts alive during the spill. Our results demonstrate that the difficult-to-detect long-term impacts of environmental disasters may still be highly significant and can be rigorously analyzed by using a combination of population data, modeling techniques, and statistical analyses.
Sea otter (Enhydra lutris) populations experienced widespread reduction and extirpation due to the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. We examined genetic variation within four microsatellite markers and the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) d-loop in one prefur trade population and compared it to five modern populations to determine potential losses in genetic variation. While mtDNA sequence variability was low within both modern and extinct populations, analysis of microsatellite allelic data revealed that the prefur trade population had significantly more variation than all the extant sea otter populations. Reduced genetic variation may lead to inbreeding depression and we believe sea otter populations should be closely monitored for potential associated negative effects.