Detailed postmortem examination of southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) found along the California (USA) coast has provided an exceptional opportunity to understand factors influencing survival in this threatened marine mammal species. In order to evaluate recent trends in causes of mortality, the demographic and geographic distribution of causes of death in freshly deceased beachcast sea otters necropsied from 1998–2001 were evaluated. Protozoal encephalitis, acanthocephalan-related disease, shark attack, and cardiac disease were identified as common causes of death in sea otters examined. While infection with acanthocephalan parasites was more likely to cause death in juvenile otters, Toxoplasma gondii encephalitis, shark attack, and cardiac disease were more common in prime-aged adult otters. Cardiac disease is a newly recognized cause of mortality in sea otters and T. gondii encephalitis was significantly associated with this condition. Otters with fatal shark bites were over three times more likely to have pre-existing T. gondii encephalitis suggesting that shark attack, which is a long-recognized source of mortality in otters, may be coupled with a recently recognized disease in otters. Spatial clusters of cause-specific mortality were detected for T. gondii encephalitis (in Estero Bay), acanthocephalan peritonitis (in southern Monterey Bay), and shark attack (from Santa Cruz to Point Año Nuevo). Diseases caused by parasites, bacteria, or fungi and diseases without a specified etiology were the primary cause of death in 63.8% of otters examined. Parasitic disease alone caused death in 38.1% of otters examined. This pattern of mortality, observed predominantly in juvenile and prime-aged adult southern sea otters, has negative implications for the overall health and recovery of this population.
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