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22 January 2014
Cardiff University’s Otter Project research has been showcased online in two short films produced by Understanding Animal Research (UAR).
UAR visited Cardiff to find out more about the work of the Otter Project, a long term environmental surveillance scheme, using otters found dead to investigate contaminants, disease, and population biology across the UK. UAR filmed an otter dissection and interviewed Project Manager, Dr Elizabeth Chadwick.
The otter project was originally set up in the early 1990’s following considerable concern about otter population declines due to chemical pollution. The project monitored this pollution by analysing the tissues of otters for chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and organochlorine pesticides. Monitoring reveals continuing contamination, but shows a steady fall in most of these pollutants.
At the start of the project only a dozen or so otter carcases were sent in, now Cardiff receives nearly two hundred per year from across England and Wales. This is partly due to increased public awareness of the project, but also because of an increased otter population. Due to a decrease in pollution and more care being taken to protect suitable habitats, otters have returned to most of England, where they were once almost wiped out. This increased population sadly results in more otters being killed on the roads, many of which are sent to the Cardiff lab for analysis.
The Otter Project addresses fundamental questions about freshwater systems and population biology. Much of the research, including work on both pollutants and disease, has potential implications for human health. Research on disease is highlighted in one of the films, about the pervasive parasite Toxoplasma gondii which spread in cat faeces. The resulting disease, Toxoplasmosis, can infect people as well as other mammals and birds. About a third of the human population are infected worldwide. The Otter Project is tracking the disease in the wild by using the samples from dead otters to map the distribution of infection, and is investigating how the genetics of the parasite in otters compares with that in the human population.
The International Otter Survival Fund have just announced funding for the Otter Project to expand into Scotland, allowing research to encompass the whole range of the British otter population.
The films are now online and available to watch here. (Warning, the films do contain images of animal dissection)
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