Prevalence and genetic characterization of a Babesia microti-like species in the North American river otter (Lontra canadensis)

Kayla Garrett, Ashlyn Halseth, Mark G. Ruder, James Beasley, Barbara Shock, Adam J. Birkenheuer, Mourad Gabriel, Christine Fiorello, M. Melanie Haire, Colleen Olfenbuttel, M. Kevin Keel, Michael J. Yabsley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A 4.5-month-old, male, North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) from Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, USA being temporarily housed at a rehabilitation facility, presented with a three-day history of lethargy, anorexia, and severe anemia. Antemortem blood smears revealed intraerythrocytic piroplasms. Supportive care and antiparasitic treatments were initiated, but the animal died three days following presentation. Gross necropsy revealed yellow discoloration of all adipose tissue throughout the carcass and a mildly enlarged, diffusely yellow to pale orange liver. Microscopically, moderate, centrilobular hepatocellular degeneration and necrosis were observed, consistent with hypoxia secondary to apparent hemolytic anemia. Piroplasms were frequently observed in red blood cells in histologic sections. The nearly full-length 18S rRNA gene sequence (1588 bp) was identical to a previously described piroplasm from North American river otters from North Carolina. Phylogenetically, based on the 18S rRNA gene sequence, the otter Babesia sp. was in a sister group with a clade that included several strains of Babesia microti-like species including Babesia sp. from badgers (Meles meles), Babesia vulpes, and Babesia sp. from raccoons (Procyon lotor). To better understand the distribution and genetic variability of this Babesia species, otters from four states in the eastern U.S. and California were tested. Overall, 30 of 57 (53%) otters were positive for Babesia sp. None of four otters from California were positive, but prevalences in eastern states were generally high, 5/9 (55%) in Georgia, 7/14 (50%) in South Carolina, 10/17 (59%) in North Carolina, and 8/13 (62%) in Pennsylvania). Partial 18S rRNA gene sequences from all populations were identical to the clinical case sequence. No Babesia sensu stricto infections were detected. There were six unique COI sequences (937 bp) detected in 18 positive otters. The most common lineage (A) was detected in 12 of 18 (67%) samples from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Lineage B was found in two otters and the remaining lineage types were found in single otters. These six lineages were 99–99.8% similar to each other and were < 88% similar to related parasites such as B. vulpes, B. microti-like species of raccoons, B. microti, and B. rodhaini. Phylogenetically, the Babesia sp. of otters grouped together in a well-supported clade separate from a sister group including B. vulpes from fox (Vulpes vulpes) and domestic dogs. In conclusion, this report demonstrates that this piroplasm is a potential pathogen of North American river otters and the parasite is widespread in otter populations in the eastern United States.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100696
JournalVeterinary Parasitology: Regional Studies and Reports
StatePublished - Apr 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Babesia microti-like species
  • Babesiosis
  • Hemolytic anemia
  • Lontra canadensis
  • North American river otter
  • Phylogenetic analyses

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Parasitology
  • veterinary(all)


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