River Otter Research

This has been a very busy and productive summer for the Marine Ecosystem Health Program (MEHP [now the SeaDoc Society]). Not only did we convene the First Biennial MEHP Science Symposium in September, but we also launched an exciting new wildlife health research project which we’d like to tell you a bit about. Joe is leading a long-term study of the health of river otters within the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia.

Over most of their range, river otters primarily forage in fresh water, but in the inland waters region, they also forage in the marine environment. In fact, not only have river otters been reported to travel up to five miles over land in search of food, but marine-foraging river otters have been documented to dive in nearshore coastal waters to depths of 60 feet to forage on fish. Because they feed in both freshwater and marine systems, these otters essentially function as a link -- a bridge, if you will -- between the marine and terrestrial environments. They depend on healthy, intact terrestrial and nearshore marine habitats for their survival. Their population status and health can tell us a lot about the health of the nearshore coastal marine environment.

Surprisingly little information has been gathered on the local river otter population, despite their high profile. We are changing that with this study. With a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation to study the health of these otters, Joe will investigate the distribution, genetic relatedness, and diseases of local otters, paying particular attention to diseases they may be picking up from terrestrial animals and carrying into the marine environment, and vice versa. Ultimately, the results of this research will not only give us a better understanding of the natural history of these fascinating animals, but more importantly, will help guide best management practices for our nearshore marine environment.

We’re fortunate to be collaborating with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and British Columbia's Ministry of Water, Land, and Air Protection on this project. The real collaborators, however, are the numerous private citizens who are helping out by allowing Joe to access their private property to catch and release otters. If you have otters near your house and would like to participate in this research, or just want more information about this project, please contact Joe.

Thank you again for taking an interest in the successes of the MEHP. We’re looking forward to sharing our latest news with you.


Kirsten V.K. Gilardi, DVM, Dipl. ACZM Program Coordinator

Joseph K. Gaydos, VMD, PhD Staff Scientist