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River Otters Caught on Film as Part of FSU Research Efforts
03/07/2003

Combining elements of "Candid Camera" and "Wild Kingdom," researchers at Frostburg State University have developed a new sort of show, starring river otters.

As part his work with the Pennsylvania otter recovery project, Dr. Tom Serfass, an associate professor of biology at FSU, came up with the idea of setting up video cameras and still cameras, triggered by infrared heat and motion sensors, to capture images of these elusive aquatic creatures. His intent was to obtain a more accurate census count. By filming the otters, researchers hope to determine whether the animals captured on film are actually contributing to scat droppings found at a given site. DNA is extracted from the scat to identify individual otters for the census.

Sadie Stevens, one of Serfass's graduate students, oversees the camera project, which now includes two "otter cams" in Pennsylvania's Ohiopyle State Park and one at Allegheny National Forest's Tionesta Creek. Weather permitting, Serfass and his graduate student research team hope to have set up a total of eight video cameras and 12 still cameras throughout Pennsylvania for a year of filming.

As a bonus, the film footage affords a glimpse of otters' antics that can be used for behavioral studies and offers proof that these playful members of the weasel family like to have a good time sliding on their bellies, chasing each other, tussling, doing flips and frolicking.

"It's been really exciting," Stevens says. "We don't have much data on this sort of thing. It's a real incentive to us." She plans to pursue doctoral study and a career in conservation, with a focus on carnivores.

Stevens' work is part of a large-scale monitoring project at sites where river otters have been reintroduced throughout Pennsylvania. From this project, Serfass hopes to develop a model to monitor the status and distribution of otter populations throughout North America.

"Reintroducing otters to these ecosystems is an important part in helping to restore that system's ecological diversity," Serfass said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Because of their sensitivity to pollutants, the otters act as watershed "barometers." The fact that these animals are thriving in the reintroduction sites indicates that cleanup efforts have been successful.

A successful outcome for the Ohiopyle State Park watershed was made possible by a landmark legal judgment in 1999 that resulted in the largest civil penalty ever levied by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection against a mining company in the history of Pennsylvania's mining program. Mine pollution in the Casselman River had threatened to jeopardize the program in the area. Funds from the fine paid for a passive mine drainage treatment system, the stocking of fish and the release of otters into the Youghiogheny River.

Now beginning its third decade, the otter recovery project receives some funding from the sale of license plates featuring the river otter. This initiative was developed by one of the project's major supporters, the Wild Resource Conservation Fund, which worked in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Funding also comes from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

With cleaner waterways, legal protection from trapping and increased public appreciation, these intriguing creatures now have a chance to thrive as they once did in pre-colonial days.

For further information on this release, contact:

Office of News and Media Services
Frostburg State University
101 Braddock Road
Frostburg, MD  21532-2303

Telephone: 301-687-3171
Fax: 301-687-7589
E-mail: news@frostburg.edu