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Type X strains of Toxoplasma gondii are virulent for southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) and present in felids from nearby watersheds


Why some Toxoplasma gondii-infected southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) develop fatal toxoplasmosis while others have incidental or mild chronic infections has long puzzled the scientific community. We assessed robust datasets on T. gondii molecular characterization in relation to detailed necropsy and histopathology results to evaluate whether parasite genotype influences pathological outcomes in sea otters that stranded along the central California coast. Genotypes isolated from sea otters were also compared with T. gondii strains circulating in felids from nearby coastal regions to assess land-to-sea parasite transmission. The predominant T. gondii genotypes isolated from 135 necropsied sea otters were atypical Type X and Type X variants (79%), with the remainder (21%) belonging to Type II or Type II/X recombinants. All sea otters that died due to T. gondii as a primary cause of death were infected with Type X or X-variant T. gondii strains. The same atypical T. gondii strains were detected in sea otters with fatal toxoplasmosis and terrestrial felids from watersheds bordering the sea otter range. Our results confirm a land-sea connection for virulent T. gondii genotypes and highlight how faecal contamination can deliver lethal pathogens to coastal waters, leading to detrimental impacts on marine wildlife.

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