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March 2003

Delve deeper into hot topics featured in NGM's March Geographica and Who Knew with help from Resources. Click on a link, pick up a periodical, browse through a book, and explore!
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Can't Go HomeToxic StormsSea Otters

Sea Otters Catch Infection From Cats

Sea otters off the California coast have been found to have toxoplasma infections. In humans, toxoplasma can cause miscarriages or fetal heart or brain abnormalities. Cats are the primary carriers; they incubate and excrete the parasite's eggs: That's why pregnant women are warned not to clean litter boxes.

Melissa Miller, a veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, says that 42 percent of the live and 62 percent of the dead otters she examined tested positive for toxoplasma antibodies.

Cat waste reaching the ocean in runoff could be the culprit: Miller found that otters living near major stream and river mouths were almost three times more likely to be infected than otters near low-runoff sites.

The parasite causes fatal encephalitis in otters, suggesting another reason why their California population is less than 2,200, down 10 percent from 1995.

—John L. Eliot

Web Links

The Otter Project
Learn more about how contaminants are affecting California sea otters and what this organization is doing to promote the recovery of this keystone species.

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Randerson, James. "All in the Mind?" New Scientist (October 26, 2002), 40-43.


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