These cute little guys have been slinking about in Cork City, unbeknownst to most of us. Denise O’Meara tells us that everyday citizens have been helping scientists to track down local otters and study their movements.
The banks of our own lovely Lee are not just a pretty place for a walk, the Lee is in fact an important place for the otter, often described as our most charismatic but elusive species. It may come as a surprise to some that these wild mammals often go by unnoticed in a busy city like Cork. Otters are highly secretive animals and do their best to avoid being seen. They often fish early in the morning or late in the evening when they are less likely to be spotted. The sharper, or perhaps luckier amongst us have on occasion spotted otters near the bus station at Parnell Place and along the quays.
One of the easiest ways to spot evidence of an otter is to track their faeces (spraints) and these can be used to provide information about the presence of otters in an area. The School of Biological, Environmental and Earth Science at UCC is currently studying these local otters, and have been since 2006, when they were first noticed in the area and throughout Cork City.
Newer studies have sprung into life, all collaborating in an attempt to obtain a better understanding of the urban otter. The Irish Wildlife Trust engaged with members of the general public and held a number of workshops and events at Fota Wildlife Park where volunteers were trained on how to record signs of otter activity.
Over the course of the investigation that ran for just over a year, 199 potential otter spraints were collected by teams of ‘citizen scientists’ across the city. Using a recently developed genetic toolbox, it was possible to genetically identify 187 of those spraints as otter, and from that, 42 spraints were determined as being from females, and 87 were from males. Finally, the best quality samples were used to obtain a genetic fingerprint, which revealed 11 individual otters (six male and five female).
As of yet, there is no indication as to how many resident otters occur within the city or how many otters are transient, i.e. just passing through the urban waterways to reach the coastal area. Cork has many tributaries leading into the city, and it is possible that the waterways represent an important route for otters seeking the plentiful food resources available in the sea. Future studies may in time reveal more information about the population dynamics of the urban otter in Cork City, and shed further light into the importance of this urban waterway for the conservation of otters.
The study was a useful insight into citizen science, and to see how scientific studies can successfully engage members of the public. In this case, the success story has been the people who took part. Volunteers gave up their time to help participate in this study and showed great enthusiasm to engage with both the Irish Wildlife Trust and academic institutes. Not only did the volunteers learn how to spot signs of otters, they learned that their home town is an important area for the otter, and through the involvement of the public in studies like this, the information learned by the people will continue to flow through every day conversations.
Long after the science has gathered dust, and no longer interests the scientists, the legacy of the Cork otter is now with the local community, the very people who need the knowledge in order to sustain its future.
Denise O’Meara is currently working as a Project Officer for the Mammals in a Sustainable Environment (MISE) Project, Ireland. She holds a degree in Applied Ecology from University College. Catch her wildlife blog here.