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Spatial epidemiological patterns suggest mechanisms of land-sea transmission for Sarcocystis neurona in a coastal marine mammal.


Sarcocystis neurona was recognised as an important cause of mortality in southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) after an outbreak in April 2004 and has since been detected in many marine mammal species in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Risk of S. neurona exposure in sea otters is associated with consumption of clams and soft-sediment prey and is temporally associated with runoff events. We examined the spatial distribution of S. neurona exposure risk based on serum antibody testing and assessed risk factors for exposure in animals from California, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. Significant spatial clustering of seropositive animals was observed in California and Washington, compared with British Columbia and Alaska. Adult males were at greatest risk for exposure to S. neurona, and there were strong associations with terrestrial features (wetlands, cropland, high human housing-unit density). In California, habitats containing soft sediment exhibited greater risk than hard substrate or kelp beds. Consuming a diet rich in clams was also associated with increased exposure risk. These findings suggest a transmission pathway analogous to that described for Toxoplasma gondii, with infectious stages traveling in freshwater runoff and being concentrated in particular locations by marine habitat features, ocean physical processes, and invertebrate bioconcentration.

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