Since 1970, periodic outbreaks of leptospirosis, caused by pathogenic spirochetes in the genus Leptospira, have caused morbidity and mortality of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) along the Pacific coast of North America. Yearly seasonal epizootics of varying magnitude occur between the months of July and December, with major epizootics occurring every 3-5 years. Genetic and serological data suggest that Leptospira interrogans serovar Pomona is the infecting serovar and is enzootic in the California sea lion population, although the mechanism of persistence is unknown. We report asymptomatic carriage of Leptospira in 39% (33/85) of wild, free-ranging sea lions sampled during the epizootic season, and asymptomatic seroconversion with chronic asymptomatic carriage in a rehabilitated sea lion. This is the first report of asymptomatic carriage in wild, free-ranging California sea lions and the first example of seroconversion and asymptomatic chronic carriage in a sea lion. Detection of asymptomatic chronic carriage of Leptospira in California sea lions, a species known to suffer significant disease and mortality from the same Leptospira strain, goes against widely-held notions regarding leptospirosis in accidental versus maintenance host species. Further, chronic carriage could provide a mechanism for persistent circulation of Leptospira in the California sea lion population, particularly if these animals shed infectious leptospires for months to years.
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