Ancient Microbes Poison Sea Otters In Polluted Seas

Researchers in California have discovered an ancient variety of cyanobacteria that could be one of several things killing playful Southern Sea otters faster than they can reproduce.

Melissa Miller, a state wildlife veterinarian has been investigating the recent rapid decline in among otters over the past two years. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, only 2,711 otters remain in Central and Southern California waters.

Miller’s first clue that something strange was attacking the otters came in 2007. That year, nearly a dozen otters showed up dead in Monterey Bay.

Upon examination, she discovered the animals were jaundiced, with bright yellow gums and yellow in the whites of their eyes. During autopsy, Miller found swollen livers that fell apart in her hands.

Tests for all the usual bacterial infections came up negative, so Miller was forced to dig deep into her veterinary knowledge to come up with an explanation.

According to the LA Times, Miller remembered that the damaged livers were like those of a dog or a cow that died after drinking out of a scum-choked farm pond. The culprit in those cases was a toxin, microcystin, produced by a type of cyanobacteria called Microcystis.

Her suspicions were confirmed when the California State Water Quality Control Board informed Miller that Microcystis blooms seemed to be occurring more often in lakes and estuaries; one of which was where the deceased otters had been found.

Diseased Oceans Are Deadly Habitats

The reemergence of cyanobacteria, an ancestor of modern-day bacteria and algae, is part of global trend that scientists attribute to the buildup of pollution and nutrients in oceans and fresh water supplies. This contamination is thought to be a consequence of expanding agriculture and the modern industrial society.

Aside from providing the perfect breeding ground for hostile cyanobacteria, marine pollution is causing ocean dead zones all over the world, especially near areas heavily populated by humans.

Devoid of the oxygen needed to support vibrant marine life, these dead zones cause reproductivity problems in marine organisms by decreasing the size of reproductive organs, number of eggs and spawning activity.

Take Action!

Celebrate Sea Otter Awareness Week
Make Ocean Health A Global Priority
Sign The ‘Save My Oceans’ Pledge
Send A Letter To Support Ocean Acidification Research

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Image Credit: Flickr - Mike Baird

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Gita Sasi Dharan
Gita Sasi Dharan5 years ago

Are humans contributing to otter decline? Ha, Ha, humans should feel ashamed that they contribute to a lot of destruction and decline!

Carol Cowbrough
Carol Cowbrough5 years ago

Noted. Thanks.

Lauren MacLellan
Lauren MacLellan5 years ago

we need to take care of our environment or it will all be gone. i want to live in a world where my kids can see otters and other amazing creatures in real life not just history

Judy S.
Judy Stern5 years ago

the call them dumb animals I still say the only dumb ones walk upright on two legs

Silvana L.
Silvana L.5 years ago

Only man is capable of doing much damage to nature and our lilttle brothers

gerlinde p.
gerlinde p.5 years ago

very sad, thanks for the article

Jennifer W.
Jennifer W.5 years ago

Why are we still dumping everything into our precious waters? Sewerage has many usable nutrients for fertizers and even precious metals such as Gold that gets washed off jewelry and crockery. A major rethink is needed by governments and agriculturalists worldwide.

Jennifer Martin
Jennifer M.5 years ago

Humans are contributing to everything that is wrong with the world. We can't keep living this way and expect to actually have anything left.

Philippa P.
Philippa P.5 years ago

Another species in trouble because of humans.

Athena C.
Athena C.5 years ago

Oy, what next? How do we stop this?