The dissemination of human-associated bacteria into the marine environment has the potential to expose wildlife populations to atypical microbes that can alter the composition of the gut microbiome or act as pathogens. The objective of the study was to determine whether endangered Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) pups from two South Australian colonies, Seal Bay, Kangaroo Island and Dangerous Reef, Spencer Gulf, have been colonised by human-associated Escherichia coli. Faecal samples (n = 111) were collected to isolate E. coli, and molecular screening was applied to assign E. coli isolates (n = 94) to phylotypes and detect class 1 integrons; mobile genetic elements that confer resistance to antimicrobial agents. E. coli phylotype distribution and frequency differed significantly between colonies with phylotypes B2 and D being the most abundant at Seal Bay, Kangaroo Island (55% and 7%) and Dangerous Reef, Spencer Gulf (36% and 49%), respectively. This study reports the first case of antimicrobial resistant E. coli in free-ranging Australian sea lions through the identification of class 1 integrons from an individual pup at Seal Bay. A significant relationship between phylotype and total white cell count (WCC) was identified, with significantly higher WCC seen in pups with human-associated phylotypes at Dangerous Reef. The difference in phylotype distribution and presence of human-associated E. coli suggests that proximity to human populations can influence sea lion gut microbiota. The identification of antimicrobial resistance in a free-ranging pinniped population provides crucial information concerning anthropogenic influences in the marine environment.
Keywords: Antimicrobial resistance; Escherichia coli; Neophoca cinerea; Uncinaria sanguinis.
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