The parasite was introduced into the sea otter’s body through infected live prey that was fed to her or by a passing seabird that defecated into her open-air water tank.
Either way, sarcocystis neurona is the culprit in the February death of the Gidget, veterinarians at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have found.
Gidget was 10 years old when she died, having lived as distinguished a life as any marine mammal in recent memory. Besides being popular with crowds, she played “an important role in the aquarium’s surrogacy program for stranded sea otter pups,” the Aquarium noted in the announcement of her autopsy results.
That’s a way of saying that Gidget acted as a foster mom to many an orphan pup who got helplessly washed up on California’s shores. Her own story involves being saved as a 10-week-old pup stranded on Morro Strand State Beach in 2008 and transferred to the Aquarium for care.
But what will cement this sea otter’s legacy forever is that her blood was used by UCLA researchers to sequence the genome of her species for the first time.
“Gidget touched millions of people, played an important role in our surrogacy program, and through her DNA made a lasting contribution to sea otter conservation,” Mike Murray, the Aquarium's chief veterinarian, said in a statement.
The Aquarium said it would continue to feed rescued sea otters live food items, whether wild caught or farmed, because it’s vital for the ultimate goal of the surrogate-rearing program: reintroducing stranded pups to their natural habitat.