'Sunday Scientist' shines light on otter scat study

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Did you know that poop is like a fingerprint? It is unique to an individual and holds a lot of clues.

The University of Nebraska State Museum will present a program for children and families that explores what wildlife researchers from UNL's School of Natural Resources and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission are uncovering about Nebraska's river otters based on samples of their scat. The program, part of the museum's Sunday with a Scientist series, is 1:30-4:30 p.m. July 18 at Morrill Hall. The program, "Poop!: Getting to the Bottom of Nebraska's Otter Population" will be led by Amy Williams, graduate assistant in the school's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

River otters are nocturnal mammals that live along Nebraska's river basins. Otters are one of the state's most reclusive species. They became extinct in Nebraska in the 1900s, primarily due to rampant fur trapping. River otters were reestablished in Nebraska following their reintroduction by Game and Parks in 1986, yet they remain a state threatened species - and a bit of a mystery. Scientists are seeking to know more about the species and their ecology to be able to develop a population management plan and aid in their conservation.

In October 2006, the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit with Game and Parks initiated a research project with the goal of collecting home range and habitat use information on river otters along the Big Bend Reach of the Platte River using radio telemetry. Otters are difficult to trap and implant with radio transmitters for tracking due to their intelligence and elusive nature. The research team, headed by Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit leader and UNL School of Natural Resources professor Craig Allen, managed to capture and tag just 18 otters in four years.

Because few otters can be tracked, the researchers began collecting their scat in October 2009 to conduct DNA analysis. The DNA in the droppings provides insight about the rare species - besides what they had for lunch - such as lineage, population size, where they live and how they interact with their environment. While studying dried-out poop piles may not be glamorous, it has yielded useful data to begin closing existing information gaps. If this pilot study is successful, this noninvasive genetic sampling technique may be used on a larger scale to determine the overall otter population statewide. The study will continue through 2010.

Williams and other researchers from the team will share with museum visitors what they have learned from studying genetic imprints in otter poop, such as how well they have been able to repopulate and how this information will help ensure that otters will continue to be around for future generations to enjoy.

Demonstrations and hands-on activities will help visitors of all ages better understand how the scientists search for scat in the field, preserve it, and analyze it in the lab. There will be two mounted otters and samples of scat in sealed jars for visitors to examine - if they dare.

The presenters will also discuss how changes to the species' habitat may affect them. For example, research is being done to understand how current efforts to eradicate the invasive reed species Phragmites australis from Nebraska rivers may disrupt otters. Because little is known about basic otter ecology, these factors are important to consider in their conservation.

The Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in the UNL School of Natural Resources is a unique collaborative relationship between the Federal government, universities, states, and a non-profit organization. The first Cooperative Research Unit was established in 1935 and located in Ames, Iowa, at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University). With the addition of the Nebraska Unit in 2004, the CRU program is comprised of 40 units. The mission of the program is to train graduate students for professional careers in natural resource research and management, conduct research that will create new information useful for management of natural resources, and provide technical assistance to its cooperators.

For more information, go to http://snr.unl.edu/necoopunit/default.asp.

Sunday with a Scientist is a series of presentations that highlights the work of museum scientists and those from other institutions, while educating children and families on a variety of topics related to science and natural history. Presenters will share scientific information in a fun and informal way through talks, demonstrations and activities, or by conducting their science on site. Sunday with a Scientist programs are 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. at Morrill Hall on the third Sunday of each month through December.

Upcoming Sunday with a Scientist topics are: Beetle Mania (Aug. 15), Archaeology (Sept. 19), Ancient People (Oct. 17), Native Americans (Nov. 21), and Nebraska Amphibians (Dec. 19). For more information on the program or the museum, go to http://www.museum.unl.edu.

- By Dana Ludvik, University of Nebraska State Museum

More details at: http://go.unl.edu/tmr