Greater interaction between humans and wildlife populations poses significant risks of anthropogenic impact to natural ecosystems, especially in the marine environment. Understanding the spread of microorganisms at the marine interface is therefore important if we are to mitigate adverse effects on marine wildlife. We investigated the establishment of Escherichia coli in the endangered Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) by comparing fecal isolation from wild and captive sea lion populations. Fecal samples were collected from wild colonies March 2009-September 2010 and from captive individuals March 2011-May 2013. Using molecular screening, we assigned a phylotype to E. coli isolates and determined the presence of integrons, mobile genetic elements that capture gene cassettes conferring resistance to antimicrobial agents common in fecal coliforms. Group B2 was the most abundant phylotype in all E. coli isolates (n = 37), with groups A, B1, and D also identified. Integrons were not observed in E. coli (n = 21) isolated from wild sea lions, but were identified in E. coli from captive animals (n = 16), from which class I integrases were detected in eight isolates. Sequencing of gene cassette arrays identified genes conferring resistance to streptomycin-spectinomycin (aadA1) and trimethoprim (dfrA17, dfrB4). Class II integrases were not detected in the E. coli isolates. The frequent detection in captive sea lions of E. coli with resistance genes commonly identified in human clinical cases suggests that conditions experienced in captivity may contribute to establishment. Identification of antibiotic resistance in the microbiota of Australian sea lions provides crucial information for disease management. Our data will inform conservation management strategies and provide a mechanism to monitor microorganism dissemination to sensitive pinniped populations.
Keywords: Captivity; integron (intI1 and intI2); phylotyping; pinniped; wildlife.