Predators, Disease, and Environmental Change in the Nearshore Ecosystem: Mortality in Southern Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) From 1998–2012

Melissa A. Miller, Megan E. Moriarty, Laird Henkel, Martin Tim Tinker, Tristan L. Burgess, Francesca I. Batac, Erin Dodd, Colleen Young, Michael D. Harris, David A. Jessup, Jack Ames, Patricia A. Conrad, Andrea E. Packham, Christine K. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


We compiled findings from 15 years (1998–2012) of southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) necropsies, incorporating data from 560 animals. Sensitive diagnostic tests were used to detect biotoxins, bacteria, parasites and fungi. Methods to classify primary and contributing causes of death (COD) and sequelae utilized an updated understanding of health risks affecting this population. Several interesting patterns emerged, including identification of coastal regions of high mortality risk for sea otter mortality due to shark bite, cardiomyopathy, toxoplasmosis, sarcocystosis, acanthocephalan peritonitis and coccidioidomycosis. We identified demographic attributes that enhanced the risk of disease in relation to age, sex, and reproductive stage. Death due to white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) bite increased dramatically during the study period and was the most common primary COD. However, when primary and contributing COD were combined, the most prevalent COD was infectious disease (affecting 63% of otters), especially fatal infections by acanthocephalans (Profilicollis spp.) and protozoa (e.g., Sarcocystis neurona and Toxoplasma gondii). Fatal bacterial infections were also extremely common as a primary process or a sequela, affecting 68% of examined otters. Substantial advances were made in identifying sea otters that died following exposure to the pervasive marine neurotoxin domoic acid (DA), and DA intoxication was conservatively estimated as a primary or contributing COD for 20% of otters. Cardiomyopathy was also highly prevalent as a primary or contributing COD (41%) and exhibited significant associations with DA intoxication and protozoal infection. For adult and aged adult females in late pup care through post-weaning at the time of death, 83% had end lactation syndrome (ELS) as a primary or contributing COD. This comprehensive longitudinal dataset is unique in its depth and scope. The large sample size and extensive time period provided an opportunity to investigate mortality patterns in a changing environment and identify spatial and temporal disease “hot spots” and emerging threats. Our findings will help improve estimates of population-level impacts of specific threats and optimize conservation and environmental mitigation efforts for this threatened species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number582
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
StatePublished - Nov 19 2020


  • cardiomyopathy
  • domoic acid
  • infectious disease
  • mortality
  • pathology
  • risk factors
  • southern sea otter
  • white shark bite

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Aquatic Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Ocean Engineering


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