RIT Students Spread Otter Awareness

In the past few months I have been lucky enough to have a group of RIT students putting together material to spread otter awareness for their senior capstone project.  This past weekend the students presented their materials at Imagine RIT and talked with hundreds individuals from the Greater Rochester area.

The students also put together a set of Otter Spotting Techniques to help local otter spotters look for otters and provide tips to help otters in the wild.  Take a look at all their hard work RIT Capstone Project.

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Otter Spotter Workshop

One of the main goals of Otter Spotter is to provide resources for teachers and zoo educators to use in their classrooms.  Lesson plans for multiple ages covering math, science, and even a little ELA are available in the Teacher Resources section of the site.  Many of these resources are based on New York State Learning Standards.

A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to be able to test out some of these lesson plans at the Seneca Park Zoo.  Former participants in ZooCamp were invited to a three hour workshop at the Zoo to learn all about otters!  Participants (or as we liked to call each other…Otter Spotters) were also asked to take online pre and post tests to see if their otter knowledge increased after participation in the workshop.  We packed a lot into three hours!  Below are a few photos of some of our adventures throughout the day.

We predicted what a North American river otter’s habitat would look like and what we might find there…

We went to see the otter exhibit and compared the zoo’s habitat for North American river otters to what we predicted in the classroom…

Just for fun we met a few animals who had similar adaptations to otters.  We talked about duck’s webbed feet and water repellent feathers!  Remind you of any other wetland animal???

The Otter Spotters also participated in some fun interactive activities to explore what it would be like to have webbed feet like a North American river otter or finger-like toes similar to a cape clawless otter.  The whole workshop was full of fun and learning with a terrific group of Otter Spotters!  All of the results are not yet in from post-tests but preliminary results show that the participants knew more about otters after the workshop than before.  It was an otterly wonderful day!

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Protecting Otters in Rubondo National Park, Tanzania

Spotted Necked Otter: Jan Reed-Smith, East African Otter Project

Since 2007, otter researcher Jan Reed-Smith’s work with the East African Otter Project (EAOP) has concentrated on a little-known park located in the southwest corner of Lake Victoria.  Rich with elephants, giraffes, chimps, hippos, crocodiles, and otters-Rubondo National Park is one of the few places where the historic Lake Victoria shoreline forests still exist.

As fish poaching has increased over the past two years due to poverty, poor land management, and an increase in fishermen from other areas-the East African Otter Project has stepped up efforts to work with local communities on protecting natural resources on Rubondo Island.  With support from the Columbus Zoo, the EAOP provides books in Swahili and organizes field trips to Rubondo Island for members of local Conservation Clubs.  Tanzanian Hobokela Mwanjengwa received a scholarship from the Columbus Zoo to attend one year of training at the African College of Wildlife Management- training that will help her work effectively with local communities on sustainable use of their natural resources and an improved quality of life.

Article provided by Columbus Zoo and Aquarium,  from their 2010 “Commitment to Conservation” report,  edited by Rebecca Rose.
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Otterly Fun

Help the otter find the fish!

Otters are playful animals that are fun to watch and incredibly cute!  This makes them a favorite in Zoos across the country and in the classroom!  At Otter Spotter we provide materials to be used at the Zoo, in the classroom, or even just at home having fun!

In our Teacher Resources page you will find lesson plans for Science, Math, and ELA.  You will also find the all new Playful Otters page for some fun and games!  Here you will find coloring sheets and printable games for your young otter lover!  Because just like otters, we all deserve to have a little fun!

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Teaching Local Biologists in Asia to Track Otters

Asian Small Clawed Otters

A Zoology professor at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, Dr. Padma de Silva has served as the chairperson of the IUCN Otter Specialist Group and currently serves as the Asian Coordinator for this group.  From Nepal to Thailand, Sri Lanka to Cambodia, Dr. de Silva has traveled the world to study otters, educate children and adults, and organize otter experts for in-country workshops on otter survey techniques.

Dr. de Silva notes that in many parts of Asia, people are not aware of the existence of otters in their wetlands. Since Otters are excellent indicators of healthy wetlands and people depend on clean, functioning wetland ecosystems for their survival, conservation of otters and their habitat is imperative.  After organizing successful surveys of otters in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, Dr. de Silva turned her attention to training local biologists on otter survey techniques.  In 2008, a workshop held in Cambodia taught participants how to identify otters from specimens, skins, and photographs from camera traps and how to carry out surveys for otters using direct and indirect evidence.  Scroll through the slideshow below to see photos of biologists learning new tracking techniques in Dr. de Silva’s workshops.

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Article provided by Columbus Zoo and Aquarium,  from their 2010 “Commitment to Conservation” report,  edited by Rebecca Rose.
Slideshow photos provided by Dr. Pamda de Silva.
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Otters in Training

Heather ready for training!

This past week I was lucky enough to get a private photo shoot with two of the Seneca Park Zoo otters while they were having a training session with their ZooKeeper, Catina.
These training sessions are very important to keep the animals physically and mentally active as well as reinforce a positive relationship between the ZooKeeper and the animals they care for.

Admiral and Heather ready to start training! (Heather on the left, Admiral it the middle, and Catina on the right)


Admiral is currently the oldest otter in conservation care at 21 years old! (Check out our post a few months ago about his birthday celebration). But as you can see by these photos it doesn’t slow him down too much!  He is ready for more training and more trout (his fish preference right now). All training is done by positive reinforcement; if the trainer gives the animals a cue and they do the right thing, they get a reward (for otters it is typically fish).  Many trainers also use a clicker, a small tool that makes a clicking sound when you push the button, this is used as a bridge to let the animals know exactly when they have done the right thing and the reward is on the way! If they choose not to do a behavior that is okay too; it is completely their choice.

Admiral waiting for his fishy reward!

The behaviors the otters are trained to do are naturalistic behavior that help to mimic some of the actions they do in wild.  It may be spinning in the water, standing on a stump, laying on their back, lifting a paw, or opening their mouth.  These behaviors can also help for veterinary care.  If an animal is asked to show their stomach, paw, or teeth on a regular basis as part of a fun training routine, when the vets need see these body parts it is not so scary!

As you can see, training is rewarding for the animals, the keepers, and Zoo visitors.  At the Seneca Park Zoo there is an Otter Training Demo that takes place five days a week during the summer months and is a great way to visitors see the otters in action!

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River Otter Genetics in Monroe County, NY

The Use of Molecular Scatology to Study River Otter (Lontra canadensis) Genetics: A Thesis by Barbara McElwee

As we have learned in the Otter Research and Conservation section, North American river otters were extirpated throughout all of Western New York due to habitat loss, pollution, and trapping. We also know that river otters were released into the waterways of Western New York.  In Distribution of Otters in Monroe County, NY  we learned that RIT researchers surveyed three local creeks to record data on toilet site locations and collect feces in order to determine distribution, as well as perform dietary and genetic analyses.

Photo by Jeff Gerew

For her thesis, Barbara McElwee of RIT used molecular scatology to extract DNA from feces in order to determine the amount of genetic diversity of the reintroduced river otter population. McElwee also analyzed otter scat samples from British Columbia and the Thousand Islands.  McElwee used a Stool Mini Kit to extract mitochondrial DNA from 177 samples.  About 16% of which were successfully amplified and sequenced.  The sequenced scat samples identified two otter, 14 raccoon, one beaver, one coyote, and three fish (common carp, golden redhorse, and shorthead redhorse).

After using mitochondirial DNA to determine the species,  McElwee utilized microsatellite DNA to help determine the genetic variance between individuals.  Microsatellite DNA is located on chromosomes within the nucleus of the cell and is inherited from both parents.  This should enable identification of individuals from microsatellite DNA, but may not necessarily enable determination of species .  McElween used this method to analyze the otters scat samples and included a raccoon sample as well.   Though it was not expected, the river otter microsatellite primer successfully identified microsatellite DNA from the raccoon DNA sample, despite the genetic difference between the two species.

Therefore, the results suggest that the microsatellites, that were thought to be otter specific, were not and thus skewed the results.  After trying different primers, McElwee determined that out of ten river otter microsatellite primers: three river otter primers do not work with raccoons, five primers produced identical or nearly identical sequences, and two primers need more research to determine if they work with raccoons. These results stress the importance of confirming species identification from fecal samples using mitochondrial DNA prior to the use of microsatellites to avoid misleading results.

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