Otters at Georgia Aquarium Test Positive for Coronavirus

The Asian small-clawed otters may have caught the virus from an asymptomatic staff member

A small-clawed otter sits on a green piece of fabric
Although the otters are geriatric, the aquarium staff expects them to make a full recovery. Courtesy of the Georgia Aquarium

The Georgia Aquarium announced on Sunday that several of its Asian small-clawed otters had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

The animals’ caretakers were tipped off when the otters showed symptoms like sneezing, lethargy and coughing. The aquarium is not certain as to how the otters caught the virus, but the statement suggests that a staff member with an asymptomatic infection transmitted it to the otters.

The sick otters are geriatric—one of the aquarium’s otters, Brighton, celebrated her 11th birthday on April 12, and small-clawed otters usually live up to 12 years in captivity, though some live longer. (An otter named Oz reached 18 years old at the aquarium, and some otters live to over 20 years old.) The otters’ age might make them more vulnerable to the infection, but the aquarium staff expects them to recover without long-term complications.

“Our Asian small-clawed otters are under very close monitoring by veterinarians and animal care team members. They have displayed only mild symptoms and we expect them all to make a full recovery,” says Tonya Clauss, the aquarium’s vice president of animal and environmental health, in the statement. “We are providing supportive care as needed so they can eat, rest and recover.”

The decision to test the otters for the coronavirus is a first for the Georgia Aquarium, Rachel Trent writes for CNN, but many animals have proven susceptible to the virus since last spring. Gorillas, big cats, housecats and minks had previously tested positive for the coronavirus.

As Ed Cara notes for Gizmodo, both minks and otters are mustelids, a family of about 55 meat-eating mammals, so it is not surprising that the otters were also vulnerable to the coronavirus infection.

Small-clawed otters are the smallest and least aquatic of 13 species of otter. In the wild, they live in small streams, rice paddies and mangroves of southern India, southern China, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. They live in groups and hunt crustaceans, fish, amphibians and reptiles.

The Georgia Aquarium notes in its statement that “despite following all recommended health and safety protocols,” it is most likely that a staff member with an asymptomatic coronavirus infection passed the virus to the otters. And although there is very little risk of the virus jumping from the otters back to a human, all staff who interact with the otters have been tested for Covid-19.

The otters aren’t currently on view, and the Georgia Aquarium will wait until the otters no longer test positive for the coronavirus before deciding when to return them to the public enclosure. Acrylic barriers separate the otters on exhibit from the public, so the animals do not pose a risk of spreading Covid-19 to aquarium visitors. The aquarium is currently open to the public with mask-wearing and 30-minute time slots to ensure reduced capacity.

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