Community Science: Otter Spotters Wanted

Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo is reaching out to the local community to help gather information to be used in a new research study.

The study’s focus is the North American river otter, which is a virtually unstudied species in Washington waters. Bringing in members of the community to report otter sightings will broaden the scope of the collected data. “This is a great opportunity for our community to get directly involved in science in our backyard. The more reports of sightings we can collect, the more data we’ll have on the range and behavior of river otters,” said Michelle Wainstein, PhD, a local ecologist and conservationist, and the field scientist for the project.


Woodland Park Zoo

North American river otters are members of the weasel family and live in water systems all over Washington state.  Their habitat ranges over most of North America in coastal areas, estuaries, freshwater lakes, streams and rivers.  The otter’s diet consists of what is readily available and easiest to catch.  Typically, otters consume fish, crayfish, amphibians, and birds.  All otter species are endangered.

The Green River flows from undeveloped Washington wildlands through increasingly urbanized areas to become the Duwamish River.  Since the early 1900’s, the river has been Seattle’s major industrial corridor.  The data collected for this study will speak volumes about the health of area ecosystems.  River otters are an important species in aquatic ecosystems as they can serve as sentinels, telling us about the health of their local environment. Dr. Wainstein and the project team hope to determine if river otters are found along the waterway’s entire 72-mile route.

The end of the river empties into Puget Sound and is known as the Lower Duwamish Waterway (LDW).  This area holds a complex history and faces future challenges.  The U.S. EPA has identified the LDW as a Superfund site for environmental remediation.  This identification is in response to long-term industrial pollutant exposure and urgent concern about contaminant levels.

The new study is a project of Woodland Park Zoo’s Living Northwest program that supports field conservation projects in the Pacific Northwest. “With conservation and education at the core of Woodland Park Zoo’s mission, this study is another important initiative we can support that focuses on wildlife and habitat right here in our own backyard,” said Fred Koontz, PhD, the zoo’s vice president of field conservation.

Woodland Park Zoo has a very impressive history of conservation initiatives and expertly delivers educational programs to zoo visitors and local community.  Like all AZA accredited facilities, the zoo connects people to the natural world through education, interactions, and inspiration to conserve.

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