Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment

Patricia A Conrad, M. A. Miller, Christine K Johnson, E. R. James, Jonna A Mazet, H. Dabritz, D. A. Jessup, Frances Gulland, M. E. Grigg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

245 Scopus citations


Toxoplasma gondii affects a wide variety of hosts including threatened southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) which serve as sentinels for the detection of the parasite's transmission into marine ecosystems. Toxoplasmosis is a major cause of mortality and contributor to the slow rate of population recovery for southern sea otters in California. An updated seroprevalence analysis showed that 52% of 305 freshly dead, beachcast sea otters and 38% of 257 live sea otters sampled along the California coast from 1998 to 2004 were infected with T. gondii. Areas with high T. gondii exposure were predominantly sandy bays near urban centres with freshwater runoff. Genotypic characterisation of 15 new T. gondii isolates obtained from otters in 2004 identified only X alleles at B1 and SAG1. A total of 38/50 or 72% of all otter isolates so far examined have been infected with a Type X strain. Type X isolates were also obtained from a Pacific harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) and California sea lion (Zalophus californianus). Molecular analysis using the C8 RAPD marker showed that the X isolates were more genetically heterogeneous than archetypal Type I, II and III genotypes of T. gondii. The origin and transmission of the Type X T. gondii genotype are not yet clear. Sea otters do not prey on known intermediate hosts for T. gondii and vertical transmission appears to play a minor role in maintaining infection in the populations. Therefore, the most likely source of infection is by infectious, environmentally resistant oocysts that are shed in the feces of felids and transported via freshwater runoff into the marine ecosystem. As nearshore predators, otters serve as sentinels of protozoal pathogen flow into the marine environment since they share the same environment and consume some of the same foods as humans. Investigation into the processes promoting T. gondii infections in sea otters will provide a better understanding of terrestrial parasite flow and the emergence of disease at the interface between wildlife, domestic animals and humans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1155-1168
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal for Parasitology
Issue number11-12
StatePublished - Oct 2005


  • Enhydra lutris
  • Genotype
  • RAPD
  • Sea otter
  • Toxoplasma gondii
  • Type X

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Parasitology
  • Infectious Diseases


Dive into the research topics of 'Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this