Although protected for nearly a century, California's sea otters have been slow to recover, in part due to exposure to fecally-associated protozoal pathogens like Toxoplasma gondii and Sarcocystis neurona. However, potential impacts from exposure to fecal bacteria have not been systematically explored. Using selective media, we examined feces from live and dead sea otters from California for specific enteric bacterial pathogens (Campylobacter, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, C. difficile and Escherichia coli O157:H7), and pathogens endemic to the marine environment (Vibrio cholerae, V. parahaemolyticus and Plesiomonas shigelloides). We evaluated statistical associations between detection of these pathogens in otter feces and demographic or environmental risk factors for otter exposure, and found that dead otters were more likely to test positive for C. perfringens, Campylobacter and V. parahaemolyticus than were live otters. Otters from more urbanized coastlines and areas with high freshwater runoff (near outflows of rivers or streams) were more likely to test positive for one or more of these bacterial pathogens. Other risk factors for bacterial detection in otters included male gender and fecal samples collected during the rainy season when surface runoff is maximal. Similar risk factors were reported in prior studies of pathogen exposure for California otters and their invertebrate prey, suggesting that land-sea transfer and/or facilitation of pathogen survival in degraded coastal marine habitat may be impacting sea otter recovery. Because otters and humans share many of the same foods, our findings may also have implications for human health.
- Sea otter
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