The southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) population in California (USA) and the Alaskan sea otter (E. lutris kenyoni) population in the Aleutian Islands (USA) chain have recently declined. In order to evaluate disease as a contributing factor to the declines, health assessments of these two sea otter populations were conducted by evaluating hematologic and/or serum biochemical values and exposure to six marine and terrestrial pathogens using blood collected during ongoing studies from 1995 through 2000. Samples from 72 free-ranging Alaskan, 78 free-ranging southern, and (for pathogen exposure only) 41 debilitated southern sea otters in rehabilitation facilities were evaluated and compared to investigate regional differences. Serum chemistry and hematology values did not indicate a specific disease process as a cause for the declines. Statistically significant differences were found between free-ranging adult southern and Alaskan population mean serum levels of creatinine kinase, alkaline phosphatase, alanine aminotransferase, aspartate aminotransferase, calcium, cholesterol, creatinine, glucose, phosphorous, total bilirubin, blood urea nitrogen, and sodium. These were likely due to varying parasite loads, contaminant exposures, and physiologic or nutrition statuses. No free-ranging sea otters had signs of disease at capture, and prevalences of exposure to calicivirus, Brucella spp., and Leptospira spp. were low. The high prevalence (35%) of antibodies to Toxoplasma gondii in free-ranging southern sea otters, lack of antibodies to this parasite in Alaskan sea otters, and the pathogen's propensity to cause mortality in southern sea otters suggests that this parasite may be important to sea otter population dynamics in California but not in Alaska. The evidence for exposure to pathogens of public health importance (e.g., Leptospira spp., T. gondii) in the southern sea otter population, and the naïveté of both populations to other pathogens (e.g., morbillivirus and Coccidiodes immitis) may have important implications for their management and recovery.
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Vol. 39 • No. 4