Sea Otter with Severe Facial Trauma Found in Moss Landing, California

A male sea otter with severe facial trauma was spotted swimming off Moss Landing by fishermen and whale watchers on the evening of May 4, 2014. Sea otter biologists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife captured the injured animal in Moss Landing Harbor on May 5th. Due to the severity of his injuries and a poor prognosis, he was humanely euthanized that same day.

A live sea otter with severe facial trauma was observed swimming in the water near Moss Landing on May 4, 2014.  Photo credit: Jody Elliott

A live sea otter with severe facial trauma was observed swimming in the water near Moss Landing on May 4, 2014. Photo credit: Jody Elliott

Radiographs (X rays) taken by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a postmortem examination conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed that the sea otter had multiple broken teeth and severe facial fractures.  Based on a lack of evidence of bone healing, the trauma appeared to be only a few days old. Otherwise this young adult, estimated to be 4 years old, appeared to have been in good health and was in good nutritional condition. No other significant, pre-existing health problems were identified during the postmortem examination.

A radiograph (X ray) taken after the sea otter’s capture on May 5, 2014.  The loose structure at center left is a portion of the upper jaw containing the top portions of several teeth that was found to be disconnected from surrounding bone. Photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium

A radiograph (X ray) taken after the sea otter’s capture on May 5, 2014. The loose structure at center left is a portion of the upper jaw containing the top portions of several teeth that was found to be disconnected from surrounding bone. Photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium

In order to better understand potential sources of this trauma, scientists at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife cleaned the skull. Careful inspection of the cleaned skull by a CDFW veterinary pathologist, a Forensic Anthropologist at San Francisco State University and several sea otter biologists revealed that the pattern and distribution of the facial trauma was inconsistent with wounds typically caused by shark bite or fights between otters; both are common and natural causes of sea otter trauma.  It was also distinct from injuries typically associated with boat strike, such as contact with a moving boat propeller.  Instead, the trauma appeared to be most compatible with anthropogenic (human-caused) trauma, such as a linear cut across the face by a sharp, knife-like object.

The cleaned sea otter skull, showing severe facial trauma.  Note the large section of transected bone with teeth from the maxilla (A), multiple broken, transected and missing teeth (B) and bilateral, severe fractures of the back portions of the mandible (C).  Photo credit: CDFW

The cleaned sea otter skull, showing severe facial trauma. Note the large section of transected bone with teeth from the maxilla (A), multiple broken, transected and missing teeth (B) and bilateral, severe fractures of the back portions of the mandible (C). Photo credit: CDFW

Persons with information about this incident are encouraged to contact a Special Agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, Burlingame, CA, Phone: 650-876-9078.  An anonymous report can also be made by calling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contact line at 703-358-1949, or the California Department of Fish and Wildlife CalTIP line at 1-888-DFG-CALTIP (1-888-334-2258).

Southern sea otters are protected as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They are also protected by California law.  Killing a southern sea otter is punishable by up to $100,000 in fines and a possible jail sentence.

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