A parasite is killing sea otters. Is the cat responsible?


This story first appeared in The guard And it is a body Climate Desk Cooperation.

Scientist Melissa Miller was seeing something she had never seen before in California sea otters: an unusually severe form of toxoplasmosis, which authorities confirmed had killed at least four of the animals.

“We want to get the word out. We’re seeing something we’ve never seen before,” said Miller, a veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In March, a study from DFW and the University of California, Davis, found that a previously unreported parasite species in aquatic animals was linked to the deaths of four sea otters. In the year First spotted in 1995 on Canadian mountain lions, this species has not previously been found on the California coast.

“This was a complete surprise,” Karen Shapiro with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine said in a statement. “COUG [toxoplasma strain] The genotype has never been described before in sea otters or in the California coastal area, or in any other aquatic mammal or bird.

The extent of the threat to California sea otters is not yet clear, but the parasite is a concern, the authors of the study said. This is due to the number of species affected and the potential risk to other animals. According to the UC Davis announcement, if it contaminates the environment and the marine food chain, it could pose a public health risk. The parasite can also infect humans.

Scientists are looking at a few other factors that could be tied to the strain, but won’t know if there’s a connection until more analysis is completed, Miller said.

The first case It is in 2020, the others appeared in 2022. The otters all seem to have large amounts of fat in their bodies, something Miller has never seen before. Except for their brains, she observed large numbers of parasites in their bodies. Typically, she sees large numbers of parasites in the brain in fatal cases.

“That leads me to believe that these animals died quickly,” Miller said. This strain of bacteria, she says, “was behaving very differently than anything we’d seen before.”

The UC Davis scientists found that all four otters were infected with the same parasite, a group previously reported in mountain lions.

Toxoplasma is often found in cat feces. Otters that live on the coast can be exposed to the parasite in rainwater – all four cases studied by scientists came during heavy rains.

Toxoplasmosis infection is common in sea otters — they have a roughly 60 percent chance of becoming infected in their lifetime, Miller said — and can be fatal, but this strain is particularly worrisome.

However, Miller cautions against demonizing cats unfairly.

“I don’t want this to be a war on cats,” she said. “I have two cats. What I try to do is practice what I preach and what I know as a scientist: I always keep my cats indoors and make sure to put their waste in something that doesn’t get into the environment.


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