The role of domoic acid in abortion and premature parturition of California sea lions (Zalophus caufornianus) on San Miguel island, California

Tracey Goldstein, Tanja S. Zabka, Robert L. Delong, Elizabeth A. Wheeler, Gina Yiltalo, Sibel Bargu, Mary Silver, Tod Leighfield, Frances Van Dolah, Gregg Langlois, Inga Sidor, J. Lawrence Dunn, Frances M D Gulland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


Domoic acid is a glutaminergic neurotoxin produced by marine algae such as Pseudonitzschia australis. California sea lions (Zalophus califomianus) ingest the toxin when foraging on planktivorous fish. Adult females comprise 60% of stranded animals admitted for rehabilitation due to acute domoic acid toxicosis and commonly suffer from reproductive failure, including abortions and premature live births. Domoic acid has been shown to cross the placenta exposing the fetus to the toxin. To determine whether domoic acid was playing a role in reproductive failure in sea lion rookeries, 67 aborted and live-born premature pups were sampled on San Miguel Island in 2005 and 2006 to investigate the causes for reproductive failure. Analyses included domoic acid, contaminant and infectious disease testing, and histologic examination. Pseudo-nitzschia spp. were present both in the environment and in sea lion feces, and domoic acid was detected in the sea lion feces and in 17% of pup samples tested. Histopathologic findings included systemic and localized inflammation and bacterial infections of amniotic origin, placental abruption, and brain edema. The primary lesion in five animals with measurable domoic acid concentrations was brain edema, a common finding and, in some cases, the only lesion observed in aborted premature pups born to domoic acid-intoxicated females in rehabilitation. Blubber organochlorine concentrations were lower than those measured previously in premature sea lion pups collected in the 1970s. While the etiology of abortion and premature parturition was varied in this study, these results suggest that domoic acid contributes to reproductive failure on California sea lion rookeries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-108
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Wildlife Diseases
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2009


  • Abortion
  • California sea lion
  • Contaminants
  • Domoic acid
  • Infectious disease
  • Premature births
  • Reproduction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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