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Int J Parasitol. 2002 Jul;32(8):997-1006.

Coastal freshwater runoff is a risk factor for Toxoplasma gondii infection of southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis).

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Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, 1 Shields Avenue, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.


The association among anthropogenic environmental disturbance, pathogen pollution and the emergence of infectious diseases in wildlife has been postulated, but not always well supported by epidemiologic data. Specific evidence of coastal contamination of the marine ecosystem with the zoonotic protozoan parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, and extensive infection of southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) along the California coast was documented by this study. To investigate the extent of exposure and factors contributing to the apparent emergence of T. gondii in southern sea otters, we compiled environmental, demographic and serological data from 223 live and dead sea otters examined between 1997 and 2001. The T. gondii seroprevalence was 42% (49/116) for live otters, and 62% (66/107) for dead otters. Demographic and environmental data were examined for associations with T. gondii seropositivity, with the ultimate goal of identifying spatial clusters and demographic and environmental risk factors for T. gondii infection. Spatial analysis revealed clusters of T. gondii-seropositive sea otters at two locations along the coast, and one site with lower than expected T. gondii seroprevalence. Risk factors that were positively associated with T. gondii seropositivity in logistic regression analysis included male gender, older age and otters sampled from the Morro Bay region of California. Most importantly, otters sampled near areas of maximal freshwater runoff were approximately three times more likely to be seropositive to T. gondii than otters sampled in areas of low flow. No association was found between seropositivity to T. gondii and human population density or exposure to sewage. This study provides evidence implicating land-based surface runoff as a source of T. gondii infection for marine mammals, specifically sea otters, and provides a convincing illustration of pathogen pollution in the marine ecosystem.

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