Parasite Wipes Out Sea Otters and There's Risk to Humans

Parasite Wipes Out California Sea Otters and There’s Potential Risk to Humans

/ 08:55 AM March 27, 2023

California sea otters are in danger, not just from climate change or habitat destruction. A deadly parasite called Toxoplasma Gondii has been devastating otter populations in California for over a decade.

Unfortunately, the problem shows no signs of slowing down. This parasite, found in cat feces, can infect otters and humans, making it a serious concern for public health and conservation.


The unusual strain of Toxoplasma Gondii studied had not been detected in California before. Toxoplasma Gondii is a parasite that infects many warm-blooded animals, including humans. Cats are the parasite’s primary host and it spreads through their feces.

When an animal (or human) ingests contaminated water or food, the parasite can enter its system and cause serious health problems.

Related studies and their findings

A new publication in Frontiers in Marine Science shows the results of a study conducted by scholars from the University of California, Davis, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The study examined four sea otters stranded along the California coast between 2020 and 2022. According to the research, the toxoplasmosis cases were severe, with many parasites detected throughout the otters’ bodies except for their brains.

But the problem is broader than sea otters. Researchers have found evidence that Toxoplasma infects other marine mammals, such as dolphins, sea lions, birds, and even humans.

A study in 2018 found that up to 25% of people in some California coastal communities have exposure to the parasite. Their exposure is likely through contaminated water or soil.


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The researchers expressed their worry regarding the strain’s spread in the marine ecosystem as it could potentially cause a threat to public health.

How Can the Parasite Affect Humans?

While the UC Davis researchers haven’t identified the strain in humans, they feel obligated to notify the public about their findings.

The potential risk to humans is a serious concern, as Toxoplasma can cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

In pregnant women, the parasite can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or severe congenital disabilities.

In people with weaker immune systems, it can cause severe and life-threatening illnesses. Melissa Miller, who works with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, emphasized their findings’ significance.

The parasite can infect humans and animals. Thus, she wants others to be aware of the research and quickly identify potential cases, taking necessary precautions to prevent infection.

Miller further explained that Toxoplasma could cause diseases in any warm-blooded animal. It includes humans who share the same environment or consume raw or undercooked seafood such as mussels, clams, oysters, and crabs.

Moreover, Miller shared her observations of Toxoplasma infections in sea otters over the past 25 years. Her findings highlighted that she had never observed such high parasites or severe lesions.

The CDC has reported that more than 40 million Americans incurred infection of the Toxoplasma parasite. Still, their immune systems can typically prevent any illness or harmful effects caused by the parasite.

What can be done to protect sea otters and humans from this deadly parasite?

There are a few key steps that the public can take. First, pet owners should be diligent about disposing of cat feces properly. It is a significant source of Toxoplasma contamination.

Second, coastal communities should invest in better wastewater treatment systems to prevent contaminated water from reaching the ocean.

The CDC also advises cooking meat to appropriate internal temperatures and washing produce thoroughly to avoid contracting the parasite. Researchers will continue to study the parasite.

They will also further study its effects on wildlife and humans to understand better how to prevent its spread.

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