Otterly Amazing Conservation Collaboration

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 protect animals and their habitats, also places in which people love to recreate! The Cincinnati Zoo is sending river otter fecal samples to Working Dogs for Conservation to help train the next generation of otter-mink dogs!

This is very much a team effort. Working Dogs for Conservation has been collaborating with the NASA Develop program for two consecutive terms (between Spring and Fall of 2021), with two successive teams of stellar participants developing habitat predictor maps and other mapping tools and resources to facilitate the work of their dog teams on the ground. They are using both otter and mink samples for their project to train working dogs who will search river banks 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. It is also part of a longstanding partnership with Dr. Mark La Guardia, an environmental chemist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

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 feces deposited by both otter and mink and have the ability to search for the scats of multiple, targeted 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.

The Cincinnati Zoo is excited to play a role in this important work!