For all the sea otter fans out there (and we know there are a lot of you), we have good news: it’s Sea Otter Awareness Week! And we’re here to tell you about some special otters who’ve been cared for by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. In particular, we’d like to introduce you to Otto, an 8-year-old southern sea otter, who is one lucky and resilient guy.
The handsome and spirited otter was rescued on May 31, 2017, in San Luis Obispo. Upon admission and examination by the veterinary staff at the Marine Mammal Center, Otto was diagnosed with domoic acid toxicosis. Produced by a type of algae, this toxin accumulates in the crabs, clams and scallops eaten in large quantities by sea otters. If left untreated, the toxin attacks the brain causing lethargy, disorientation, seizures and even death. (It also severely impacts California sea lions, along with California’s shellfish fisheries and people, too.)
An MRI of Otto’s brain revealed that he had a shrunken hippocampus, the area of the brain known to play a role in memory and navigation. Yankee Doodle, another male otter rescued about one month after Otto, showed signs of neurologic disease, too. Not much is yet known about domoic acid in southern sea otters, but these two Marine Mammal Center patients present an opportunity to learn more about the toxin and treat other sea mammals in the future.
“The Marine Mammal Center is proud to play an important role in recovery efforts as a first responder for live strandings of sick, injured or orphaned sea otters along California’s Central Coast,” says Dr. Shawn Johnson, Director of Veterinary Science at the Marine Mammal Center. “We work closely with partners at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Monterey Bay Aquarium to make decisions together about how to provide humane and state-of-the-art care for rescued otters.”
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In addition to his treatment for the neurotoxin, Otto was also successfully treated for multiple canine tooth fractures by the center’s veterinary dental specialist partners at Dentistry for Animals. Also, Otto had a Life History Transmitter (LHX) tag surgically implanted in his abdomen as part of an effort to track the success of his rehabilitation and survival via satellite once he’s back in his natural marine environment. Otto is the first rehabilitated southern sea otter to be released with this kind of tag, which will give researchers much needed information about his life.
After nearly four months of rehabilitation at the center, Otto was released back to Morro Bay on Friday, Sept. 22. The team has been monitoring him post-release and reports back that Otto has been seen eating and courting a female otter, as well as interacting with another territorial male in the bay, which shows he has the strength and capability to fend for himself.
“The first few days of post-release monitoring show that Otto is behaving like a normal sea otter,” says Dr. Johnson. “This is encouraging news for the rehabilitation of more otters in the future and what we can learn to help this threatened species.”
According to the center, as many as 20,000 southern sea otters once lived along the California coast, but that is no longer the case. For the last 40 years, southern sea otters have been listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. Their current population is estimated at just a few thousand.
The Marine Mammal Center is the primary first responder for stranded sea otters across its 600-mile rescue range. It recently retrofitted several existing pens at its hospital to make them a safe, suitable space for the threatened species.
We wish Otto good luck, good health and much prosperity on the continuation of his life journey, and look forward to updates on his pal Yankee Doodle, who is still being cared for by the Center.