How healthy are Scotland's otters?

Feb 17, 2014
How healthy are Scotland's otters?

( —Scotland's otters are for the first time in 20 years to be included in a UK-wide study aimed at giving scientists an insight into the chemical pollutants threatening their health and the health of their habitat.

The University's Otter Project has been monitoring the health of otters found dead in England and Wales since the early 90s, and now thanks to funding from the International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF), otters from Scotland will also be examined.

Research has to date given an insight into many aspects of otters' life history and biology, including diet, population genetics, their use of scent to communicate, the spread of disease and their exposure to .

Otters found dead – often as road-kill, but sometimes due to disease or starvation – are reported by members of the public, and sent to researchers in Cardiff, who conduct a full post mortem examination. Otters are often secretive in their behaviour, so direct observation in the wild is extremely challenging. By studying otters found dead, scientists can gather a wide range of information about them that would otherwise be unavailable.

"By expanding our research to Scotland, our research now encompasses the whole range of the otter in mainland Britain, and will be able to develop a much clearer understanding of the threats faced by otters, and the challenge faced by all of us to maintain a healthy environment," said lead researcher from the Otter Project, Dr Elizabeth Chadwick, a project manager in the School of Biosciences.

Dr Paul Yoxon, Head of Operations for the International Otter Survival Fund, said:

"We are delighted to be working with Cardiff University on this project. IOSF has been concerned for a long time that we have had no information on the health of Scottish otters since the late 1990s. Cardiff University has already found out that otters in England and Wales are not living as long as in parts of mainland Europe, but we have no idea about the situation here. We can't afford to be complacent about the health of our otters or the environment and we look forward to developing this work further."

Sitting atop the freshwater food chain, otters often accumulate chemicals that contaminate the environment – making a useful 'sentinel' of environmental pollution that is relevant to all wildlife and human health.

Research findings are used to inform conservationists and policy makers – as well as being shared with the general public who report crucial sightings.

Otter populations in Britain have made an excellent recovery since pollution driven declines in the 1950s-70s, but remain vulnerable to a wide range of threats. They seem to die younger than their counterparts on the continent; key prey species such as eels have suffered major population crashes, and research has raised serious questions about chemical threats to reproductive health.

Studies have looked at several indicators of male reproductive health and found several signs of change that give cause for concern: shrinking reproductive organs; an increase in cysts on the tubes that carry sperm during reproduction, and an increase in undescended testicles (cryptorchidism).

Explore further: Cuban, US scientists bond over big sharks

Related Stories

Are chemicals damaging the health of male otters?

Feb 26, 2013

A new report has highlighted serious concerns for the health of otters in the UK. The otter is one of the country's best loved predator species, but research indicates that they may not be in the best of ...

Study reveals disease-causing parasites in dead otters

Jun 18, 2013

Research undertaken by the Cardiff University Otter Project has revealed a number of disease-causing parasites in the bodies of dead otters. The findings were revealed at the BBC Summer of Wildlife event ...

New light on otter mystery

Jul 19, 2011

( -- The solitary and mysterious lives of British otters are being uncovered by Cardiff scientists – thanks to help from the public.

California's sea otter numbers continue slow climb

Sep 13, 2013

California sea otter numbers are up, according to the latest population survey led by federal, state, and UC Santa Cruz scientists. The reasons: more pups and the addition of San Nicolas Island sea otters ...

Recommended for you

Cuban, US scientists bond over big sharks

Jul 03, 2015

Somewhere in the North Atlantic right now, a longfin mako shark—a cousin of the storied great white—is cruising around, oblivious to the yellow satellite tag on its dorsal fin.

Research shows 'mulch fungus' causes turfgrass disease

Jul 02, 2015

Inadvertently continuing a line of study they conducted about 15 years ago, a team of Penn State researchers recently discovered the causal agent for an emerging turfgrass disease affecting golf courses around ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.