Why Sea Otters Aren’t Safe From Land-based Disease

Whenever my family is lucky enough to escape to the California coast for a few days, we visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. First stop: the sea otter exhibit, followed by a short trek outside to the viewing deck with hopes of spotting wild sea otters bobbing out on the ocean’s edge. There’s just something intrinsically joyous about these curious and playful sea creatures. I could watch them for hours.

I wasn’t able to make a trip to the aquarium for Sea Otter Awareness Week, which runs through Saturday. But I did learn something new about sea otters — specifically that they are not immune to land-based disease — right here at UC Davis.

Viruses, bacteria and parasites that you’d typically associate with humans and pet cats are reaching sea otters and other marine mammals along the coast of California, with fatal results. A recent study led by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center found that coastal development and climate change can accelerate the flow of disease-causing pathogens from land to sea.

“The way we develop our urban and rural coastlines — adding people, domestic animals, and hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt — can increase the flow of these pathogens into estuaries and oceans.” — Elizabeth VanWormer, lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis at the time of the study

Learn more about the study’s findings, and what we can do to reduce coastal pathogen pollution and its impact on sea otters.

Kristin Burns is the marketing writer for Strategic Communications, and a UC Davis alumna.

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