Otter tracking and random titbits (parasites, sharks and Darth Vader)

I got a little taste of the perils of field research when some of us got drenched by a wave where the researchers first set up. They assured us they’d never experienced something like that in over 10 years.

We were setup there before we got splashed Credit: Sandeep Ravindran

We were setup right at that edge before we got splashed Credit: Sandeep Ravindran

Once we got set up though, things went smoothly, and we actually got to collect sea-otter data:

The otters have radiotransmitters and tags, which Jane has more details about. This is roughly what we did as our experiment:

    Somewhere fairly close there were otters, I swear <i>Credit: Sandeep Ravindran </i>

    Somewhere fairly close there were otters, I swear Credit: Sandeep Ravindran

  • We scanned different frequencies until we heard signals from certain otters.
  • We looked at a booklet that matched up the frequencies and the color of the tags.
  • Then we looked through a telescope and tried to find specific otters based on their tags. We saw a whole ‘raft’ of them just relaxing in the water.
  • Once we found the otter, we filled out a bunch of information about it, including its GPS location, into a tiny hand-held computer/GPS device.

I also found out a lot of interesting little titbits about otters and the process of otter-tracking:

  • Sharks! Great whites sharks have apparently been a big problem this year. In fact, shark attacks account for up to 15% of otter deaths, as opposed to 5-7% in the ’80s and ’90s. The sad part is, sharks don’t even eat them – they’re “too hairy”, the researchers said. But the shark bite still kills the otters.
  • The otters often suffer from a number of parasitic disease, including Sarcocystis and the topic of my graduate school thesis, Toxoplasma. (I had to get in a Toxoplasma mention…)
    The otter operating theater <i>Credit: Sandeep Ravindran </i>

    The otter operating theater Credit: Sandeep Ravindran

  • One of the characteristics we had to mark about the otters were there degree of ‘grizzle’ – or how much gray hair they had. And just like humans, while the amount of gray-ness generally correlates with age, it’s also genetic, so there’s some grizzled young otters out there.
  • The otter transmitters are kind of large, and they’re made by companies that make human pacemakers. (although Motorola used to make them at some point). They’re inserted surgically into the otters.

    I’m sure if it was at all profitable, some big tech company (Apple?) would find a way to make the transmitters much smaller, cheaper and longer-lasting (and more stylish), but there’s really not a big market. Still, they do their job.

    Otter researcher's Darth Vader costume <i>Credit: Sandeep Ravindran </i>

    Otter researcher's Darth Vader costume Credit: Sandeep Ravindran

  • Toola, one of the exhibit otters, can’t be released into the wild because she suffer seizures. She needs regular doses of Phenobarbital, which is also used to treat epilepsy, seizures and anxiety in humans.
  • Otter sex can get kind of rough, particularly on female noses–female noses are often bright red or even seriously wounded after mating, because the otters are slippery and the males end up holding on rather tightly to their partner’s nose…a particularly heavily-mated otter was nicknamed “hamburger nose.”
  • And finally, the researcher wear what they call ‘Darth Vader’ costumes to take care of very young pups. This is so that the pups don’t imprint on humans, and will still be wary of humans when it’s eventually returned to the wild. It’s just safer for the otter and for us that way.

About SandeepR

I’m a freelance science writer based in New York City. I can be contacted at gro.wsan@rpeednaS. You can also find me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. Here are my clips, resume, portfolio and photos I’ve covered a variety of science and technology topics for outlets such as, Popular Science,, Nature News, The Verge, and Backchannel. I’m particularly interested in life sciences and technology and the intersection of the two. I’m also trying to cover more news related to India, particularly environmental issues and new advances in tech/research. I received a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology from Stanford University, and also studied Science Communication at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I’ve interned at a number of magazines and newspapers, and worked as a science writer for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for two years.
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One Response to Otter tracking and random titbits (parasites, sharks and Darth Vader)

  1. Pingback: Sea otter death….and life! | A Tale of Ten Slugs

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