By Bob Friel
Spotting a romp of river otters is a special highlight of any time spent around the Salish Sea and its freshwater tributaries. These mischievous members of the mustelid (weasel) family tumble and roll and wrestle and chirp and grunt and then dive as deep as 60 feet to hunt for crabs and fish, hopping onto rocks or river banks or holding their heads up out of the water so you can hear them munch down their prey.
Beyond being cute and fascinating to watch, river otters play an important role in the ecosystem both as a predator and as a sentinel species that indicates the overall health of the environment. SeaDoc scientists have done essential research on river otters, including studying their diets and their diseases (like Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that infects wildlife—and humans—via cats, both feral and house pets).
We love us our otters, which is why we’re so excited to hear from our friends at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo that as part of their Living Northwest conservation program they’ve invited everyone to participate in the Otter Spotter Community Science Initiative. This is a call for all citizen scientists to assist in a large project to determine Washington State’s river otter range and population trends. Sightings anywhere in the region will provide valuable data.
The zoo provides a simple online form where you can fill in the info about your otter experiences. When you’re out in the field, take care to note the time of day and number of otters present at each sighting. Were there pups? If so, how big were the pups compared to the adults? What were the otters doing when you saw them? And of course it’s very important to note as accurately as possible where you saw them. The website also allows you to upload photos of your sightings, which are of great use to the researchers. Now get out there and spot some otters!