DAO 53:77-88 (2003)  -  doi:10.3354/dao053077

Helminth parasites of the southern sea otter Enhydra lutris nereis in central California: abundance, distribution and pathology

Karl A. Mayer1, Murray D. Dailey2,*, Melissa A. Miller3

1Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, 8272 Moss Landing Rd., Moss Landing, California 95039, USA
2Marine Mammal Center, Marin Headlands, 1065 Ft. Cronkhite, Sausalito, California 94965, USA
3Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, 1451 Schaffer Rd., Santa Cruz, California 95060, USA
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: From October 1997 to May 2001, the gastrointestinal tracts from 162 beach-cast southern sea otters Enhydra lutris nereis were examined for helminth parasites and associated lesions. Carcasses were collected opportunistically in central California between Pt. San Pedro and Pt. Arguello. The primary goals of this study were to examine spatial and temporal variability in mortality due to parasite infection, identify factors associated with increased risk of infection, and illustrate the process of intestinal perforation by Profilicollis spp. Two genera and 4 species of acanthocephalans (Profilicollis altmani, P. kenti, P. major, Corynosoma enhydri) were found in 46.3% (Profilicollis spp.) and 94.4% (C. enhydri) of the carcasses examined. Three species of Digenea (Microphallus pirum, M. nicolli, Plenosoma minimum) were found in 47% of carcasses, at times in massive numbers (>3000 per cm2). This is the first report of the latter 2 species from the sea otter. Mortality resulting from infection by Profilicollis spp. occurred in 13.0% (n = 21) of sampled carcasses, either directly, due to perforation of the intestinal wall and peritonitis (9.9%, n = 16), or indirectly, due to inhibition of host nutrient uptake or depletion of host energy reserves to fight chronic infections (3.1%, n = 5). The most massive infections (<8760 parasites), and all cases of intestinal perforation occurred in carcasses infected by P. altmani and/or P. kenti. Mortality due to infection by Profilicollis spp. occurred more frequently among juvenile and old-adult females (χ2 = 17.479, df = 9, p = 0.045) from sand and mixed habitats in Monterey and Santa Cruz in the north of the sea otter range (χ2 = 9.84, df = 4, p = 0.045). Spatial differences in sea otter mortality coincided with the relative distributions of Profilicollis altmani, P. kenti, and P. major, and may reflect differences in sea otter diet, or differences in intensity of infection in intermediate hosts. Mortality rate due to infection by Profilicollis spp. decreased between 1998 and 2001, though differences were not significant (χ2 = 3.983, df = 3, p = 0.40), and may vary on multi-year cycles due to environmental factors such as density of definitive hosts (e.g. the surf scoter Melanitta perspicillata), or El Niño. Corynosoma enhydri did not cause significant damage to the intestine of the host, even when present in great numbers.


KEY WORDS: Sea otter · Enhydra lutris nereis · Mortality · Parasites · Acanthocephala · Intestinal perforation · Pathology · Peritonitis · Digenea


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