Sea otters are dying from an "especially virulent" rare parasite strain that could spread to other species, including humans, new research suggests.
Four sea otters that washed up on the West coast of the United States died from an unusually severe form of toxoplasmosis, according to a report by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the University of California, Davis.
Scientists say that the disease is caused by the microscopic parasite Toxoplasma gondii.
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They warned that the rare strain, never previously reported in aquatic animals, could pose a health threat to other marine wildlife and humans.
The preliminary findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, note that toxoplasmosis is common in sea otters and can be fatal.
Scientists say the unusual strain appears to be "especially virulent" and capable of rapidly killing healthy adult otters.
The rare strain of toxoplasma hasn’t been detected on the California coast before.
Scientists are concerned that if it contaminates the environment and the marine food chain, it could pose a public health risk.
At present, no infections with the strain have been reported in humans.
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Corresponding author Doctor Melissa Miller, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said: “Because this parasite can infect humans and other animals, we want others to be aware of our findings, quickly recognise cases if they encounter them and take precautions to prevent infection.
“We encourage others to take extra precautions if they observe inflamed systemic fat deposits in sea otters or other marine wildlife.”
She said toxoplasma gondii is a common parasite hosted by wild and domestic cats and shed in their droppings.
Although healthy humans rarely experience symptoms, toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriages and neurological disease.
Dr Miller said sea otters are especially vulnerable to Toxoplasma infection because they live near the shoreline where they may be exposed to the parasite’s eggs in rainwater runoff, and they eat marine invertebrates that can concentrate the parasites.
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