Defining the risk landscape in the context of pathogen pollution: Toxoplasma gondii in sea otters along the Pacific Rim

Tristan L. Burgess, M. Tim Tinker, Melissa A. Miller, James L. Bodkin, Michael J. Murray, Justin A. Saarinen, Linda M. Nichol, Shawn Larson, Patricia A Conrad, Christine K Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Pathogens entering the marine environment as pollutants exhibit a spatial signature driven by their transport mechanisms. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris), a marine animal which lives much of its life within sight of land, presents a unique opportunity to understand land–sea pathogen transmission. Using a dataset on Toxoplasma gondii prevalence across sea otter range from Alaska to California, we found that the dominant drivers of infection risk vary depending upon the spatial scale of analysis. At the population level, regions with high T. gondii prevalence had higher human population density and a greater proportion of human-dominated land uses, suggesting a strong role for population density of the felid definitive host of this parasite. This relationship persisted when a subset of data were analysed at the individual level: large-scale patterns in sea otter T. gondii infection prevalence were largely explained by individual exposure to areas of high human housing unit density, and other landscape features associated with anthropogenic land use, such as impervious surfaces and cropping land. These results contrast with the small-scale, within-region analysis, in which age, sex and prey choice accounted for most of the variation in infection risk, and terrestrial environmental features provided little variation to help in explaining observed patterns. These results underscore the importance of spatial scale in study design when quantifying both individual-level risk factors and landscape-scale variation in infection risk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number171178
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2018


  • Anthropogenic land use
  • Enhydra lutris
  • Landscape change
  • Pathogen movement
  • Spatial scale
  • Toxoplasma gondii

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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