Otter Called "Flagship Species" for Aquatic Environments Around the World
When hundreds of naturalists from around the world gather for a conference on otters at Frostburg State University, among the numerous scientific discussions will be one on how to use the engaging mammal's popularity to benefit it and other species that rely on the same aquatic habitat.
The IXth International Otter Colloquium is the first in the United States since 1985. The conference, hosted by FSU from June 4 through 10, 2004, will cover issues involving all of the world's 13 species of otters, from the local species, the North American River Otter, recently reintroduced into habitats in western Maryland and Pennsylvania, to the Hairy-Nosed Otter from southern Indochina, a species thought to be extinct until recent years.
A $50,000 Environmental Challenge Fund grant from Columbia Gas of Maryland and its parent company, NiSource Inc., has been crucial to guaranteeing that researchers from developing countries will be able to participate in the colloquium's scientific discussion, said Dr. Thomas Serfass, an otter specialist, associate professor of wildlife ecology at FSU and the organizer of the conference. This award to FSU is among the five most lucrative awards the gas company has given out since 1995.
"We need to have more links between industry and the environment and to seek more of these kinds of interactions rather than to polarize the two," Serfass said.
Much of the Columbia Gas money will be used to defer travel and registration costs of researchers who otherwise would not be able to afford to attend, especially those from developing countries where otters face some of their greatest survival challenges.
As of early March, abstracts for some 100 papers have been received, representing 35 countries worldwide. Registration is under way for the Colloquium, which is sanctioned by the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Otter Specialist Group, of which Serfass is the North American coordinator.
The organizers of the Colloquium intend that its educational benefit will extend beyond the scientific community. Students in grades 4 to 7 in Frostburg's immediate region have been invited to join a river otter poster contest, which includes a classroom presentation on otters and their habitat from an otter specialist. Up to three posters from each class will then be judged, in two age categories, by the Colloquium participants. Prizes include digital cameras, binoculars, field guides and magazine subscriptions.
The Colloquium has already attracted some notable figures in the wildlife world. Renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman has donated prints and an original work for an auction to be held during the conference. Jack Hubley, host of the syndicated TV show "Wild Moments," will give a presentation.
The IXth International Otter Colloquium is subtitled Otters: Ambassadors for Aquatic Conservation for a reason. "It was intended to make a point," Serfass said.
In contrast to scientists of the past, who feared admitting that these creatures are appealing might prevent their conservation efforts from being considered seriously, some are now recognizing the value of certain "flagship species" for the benefit that their appeal could have to other endangered, but less photogenic, species that share their habitat, Serfass said.
If people care about these delightful critters and want to help them thrive in the wild, they need to care about the health of the fish and crayfish that make up their diet, as well as the food those fish and crayfish eat, and on down the food chain that makes up the otters' habitat, Serfass said. The otters put a face – a fuzzy, expressive one – on clean water issues.
"Otters, because of their behavior and appearance, capture people's attention and imagination. They draw attention, not only to themselves, but to the habitat they live in. I think we have never taken advantage of this appealing animal as a way of protecting aquatic systems," Serfass said.
The restoration of otters in both western Maryland and western Pennsylvania – Serfass' ongoing research – marks a dramatic change in the regional ecology. Mine drainage had made the water in those streams and rivers so acidic that nothing could live in them – no plants, insects, fish or microbes. The 153 otters that Serfass' project has helped reintroduce into the wild in Pennsylvania generally appear to be thriving, a sign of how far those habitats have come, he said. His research inspired that state's familiar otter license plate.
For more information about the Colloquium, visit the Web site at http://otter.frostburg.edu, e-mail otter.frostburg.edu or call Serfass at (301) 687-4171.