Exposure to domoic acid is an ecological driver of cardiac disease in southern sea otters

Megan E. Moriarty, M. Tim Tinker, Melissa A. Miller, Joseph A. Tomoleoni, Michelle M. Staedler, Jessica A. Fujii, Francesca I. Batac, Erin M. Dodd, Raphael M. Kudela, Vanessa Zubkousky-White, Christine K. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Harmful algal blooms produce toxins that bioaccumulate in the food web and adversely affect humans, animals, and entire marine ecosystems. Blooms of the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia can produce domoic acid (DA), a toxin that most commonly causes neurological disease in endothermic animals, with cardiovascular effects that were first recognized in southern sea otters. Over the last 20 years, DA toxicosis has caused significant morbidity and mortality in marine mammals and seabirds along the west coast of the USA. Identifying DA exposure has been limited to toxin detection in biological fluids using biochemical assays, yet measurement of systemic toxin levels is an unreliable indicator of exposure dose or timing. Furthermore, there is little information regarding repeated DA exposure in marine wildlife. Here, the association between long-term environmental DA exposure and fatal cardiac disease was investigated in a longitudinal study of 186 free-ranging sea otters in California from 2001 – 2017, highlighting the chronic health effects of a marine toxin. A novel Bayesian spatiotemporal approach was used to characterize environmental DA exposure by combining several DA surveillance datasets and integrating this with life history data from radio-tagged otters in a time-dependent survival model. In this study, a sea otter with high DA exposure had a 1.7-fold increased hazard of fatal cardiomyopathy compared to an otter with low exposure. Otters that consumed a high proportion of crab and clam had a 2.5- and 1.2-times greater hazard of death due to cardiomyopathy than otters that consumed low proportions. Increasing age is a well-established predictor of cardiac disease, but this study is the first to identify that DA exposure affects the risk of cardiomyopathy more substantially in prime-age adults than aged adults. A 4-year-old otter with high DA exposure had 2.3 times greater risk of fatal cardiomyopathy than an otter with low exposure, while a 10-year old otter with high DA exposure had just 1.2 times greater risk. High Toxoplasma gondii titers also increased the hazard of death due to heart disease 2.4-fold. Domoic acid exposure was most detrimental for prime-age adults, whose survival and reproduction are vital for population growth, suggesting that persistent DA exposure will likely impact long-term viability of this threatened species. These results offer insight into the pervasiveness of DA in the food web and raise awareness of under-recognized chronic health effects of DA for wildlife at a time when toxic blooms are on the rise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101973
JournalHarmful Algae
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • Cardiac disease
  • Climate change
  • Domoic acid
  • Prey preference
  • Risk model
  • Sea otter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science
  • Plant Science


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