About This Project
By the mid 20th century, North American river otters disappeared from the San Francisco Bay Area due to decreasing water quality from human settlement. With recent wetland restoration, we are now seeing these amazing and charismatic animals return to the bay's waters, but there is no current understanding of their populations. My project's goal is to identify these otter populations so we may understand how to assist the recovery of these important animals in the Bay Area.
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What is the context of this research?
North American river otters are carnivores that venture between rivers, creeks, lakes and the ocean to feed on fish, crab, mussels, amphibians and even birds. Until recently, little was known concerning their status and ecology in California. Studies show that they are returning to their previous range in the San Francisco Delta and inland mountainous regions of the state, but there has been little documentation of their recovery in the Bay Area. Because of their dependence on the bay's waters, river otters can be excellent indicators of ecosystem health, and so identifying their populations is imperative. This project will analyze DNA from scat and jelly samples collected by the River Otter Ecology Project to assess their populations in the Bay Area.
What is the significance of this project?
Because river otters are indicators of ecosystem health, a better understanding of their population structure will directly inform bay, wetland and stream restoration efforts in the Bay Area. Results of this study will help biologists identify river otter range, how they are migrating, where they are recovering, and potential threats to their genetic diversity. In 2007, the Cosco Buscan oil spill contaminated marine and freshwater habitats along areas of the San Francisco Bay as well as Coastal Marin County. This event highlighted the susceptibility of otters to contamination and the urgent need for a baseline understanding of their populations.
What are the goals of the project?
Genetic analysis from fecal samples will be used to determine whether populations are distinct between sampling locations, and how many family lines occur in each area. Results of this study will improve our understanding of river otter natural history and ecology. Data will be published in a peer-reviewed academic journal to contribute to public knowledge, and the needs of wildlife managers and biologists. ROEP will use this information to support watershed and wetland conservation and restoration in the San Francisco Bay Area. Funds from this grant will be directly applied to the initial costs of genetic analysis including primers, extractions, and control region sequence analysis, providing data that will support the recovery of returning river otters in the Bay Area.
This project uses molecular techniques to analyze mitochondrial control region sequences and microsatellites from North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) scat and jelly samples. Project costs include DNA extraction, purchase of primers for control region and twelve microsatellite loci, PCR amplification, mini-gel electrophoresis, sequencing and microsatellite profile analysis.
Samples are collected by The River Otter Ecology Project (ROEP), a non-profit research and education organization launched in 2012 to investigate the population recovery and ecosystem niche of river otters in the San Francisco Bay Area. ROEP obtains its funding from grants and donations. In 2014, ROEP partnered with the Genetics/Transcriptomics Analysis Core (GTAC) at San Francisco State University, to initiate genetic analysis of their scat and jelly samples collected since 2012.
Meet the Team
I'm very excited to be back in the Bay Area where I grew up, working with the River Otter Ecology Project. I have long dreamed about doing science with sentinel charismatic mammals, and am delighted at the opportunity to contribute to population genetics for ROEP. My introduction to population genetics was while researching the aggregation of leopard sharks in San Diego. Tracking a shark is an arduous and soul-defeating process, but I'll never forget when I was tracking a shark early morning - exhausted and hungry - and realized that the sea around me was glowing. Shadows large and small danced around the boat, revealing fish and sea lions casted under the light of a bioluminescent algal bloom. Or the day we were greeted by a pod of blue whales, easily five times as large as our boats.
In college, I gained field experience working with bees, plankton, and coral reef ecosystems in Australia. My work included biological monitoring, and educating for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. With Teach for America, I taught Biology and Anatomy/Physiology for two years in Arkansas. After working for the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, I decided to pursue my passion for addressing big picture questions in ecology.
It is amazing to be back in the Bay Area, and to work with river otters that are also returning after such a long absence! Here's to hoping we're able to extract some awesome DNA to answer some of those big picture questions.
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