Otter-Mink Dogs & the Cincinnati Zoo

Posted June 28, 2022 by Angela Hatke

Otters Sugar and Wesley at the Cincinnati Zoo are known for their playful antics, but this is not a joke – scientists are using their fecal samples to help save animals! The Cincinnati Zoo is sending river otter fecal samples to Working Dogs for Conservation to help train the next generation of otter-mink dogs!

Working Dogs for Conservation has been collaborating with the NASA Develop program for several years, with two teams of stellar interns developing habitat predictor maps and other mapping tools and resources to facilitate the work of our dog teams on the ground. Working Dogs for Conservation is using both otter and mink samples for their training to train working dogs who will search river beds for fecal matter to be tested for environmental contaminants that are becoming increasingly prevalent in riverine ecosystems. This is ongoing work, primarily based in Montana, for dual ecological and aquatic contaminants monitoring, with underlying habitat quality evaluation and human development-climate change effects assessment.

Why otter and mink samples? Both animals occupy riverways and are apex predators, which makes them very viable sentinel species in which to monitor the presence/absence of aquatic contaminants. As predators with a largely aquatic diet,  the American mink and North American river otter serve as reliable indicator species of environmental health and the status of contaminants. The dogs are looking for scat of both otter and mink and have the ability to search for the scats of multiple species at the same time. Aside from being a non-invasive way to monitor, fecal samples tend to be far easier to procure than pelage samples from hair snares or capturing these elusive animals.