RIT Team Promotes the Return of Otters to Western New York




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Scientists at Rochester Institute of Technology are helping to promote the return of the river otter to Western New York. Otters, which once lived naturally in this area, were wiped out about 100 years ago due to water pollution, habitat loss, hunting and trapping.

Lei Lani Stelle, assistant professor of biological sciences, and a group of a dozen students are studying the success of the New York River Otter Project that reintroduced 279 otters from the Adirondack and Catskill mountains to 15 sites, including local creeks. The relocation was completed by 2000. Stelle and her team are working with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Seneca Park Zoo to track the project’s success.

“Otters were once extremely abundant in this region and we hope they will be successful in recolonizing their natural habitat,” Stelle says.

The researchers are conducting fieldwork to monitor how well the population has established itself through breeding, dispersing and setting up a home range. Fecal samples are collected and later analyzed for information about the otters’ diet and energy needs. A graduate student in Stelle’s lab is also working to extract DNA material that could genetically fingerprint individual animals, making them easier to track in the future.

In addition, the team is using imaging equipment furnished by RIT’s Carlson Center for Imaging Sciences to record otter activity and behavior. The system is also being used in Stelle’s concurrent research project studying river otters in British Columbia, allowing scientists to compare the two otter populations and their different habits.

“Whenever you reintroduce a population to an environment there are a host of problems that could negatively affect the animals, from diet change to behavioral shifts,” Stelle adds. “By studying the otter population now living in this region and comparing it to other more established groups we hope to address these concerns and help the New York state otter thrive in this region.”

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