Otters on two continents have a professor at Frostburg State University and the University System of Maryland to thank for improvement in their lives and their habitats. Dr. Thomas Serfass, associate professor in the Department of Biology, has made otters his life’s work.
Mid-way through his second year of recognition by the prestigious University System of Maryland Wilson H. Elkins Professorship, Serfass is directing projects in both North Dakota and Africa, and his former and current graduate students are following in his footsteps. That’s in addition to follow-up evaluations of a successful reintroduction program that brought river otters back to the waters of southwestern Pennsylvania.
“The outcome has been magnificent. The public in Pennsylvania has been extremely supportive,” Serfass said. He’s happy to report that the reintroduced otters are now reproducing.
His brand new project in North Dakota involves studying how otters and fishers, a land mammal that lives in the same habitat, which had disappeared from the area 100 years ago, are starting to reappear naturally, most likely moving in from Minnesota. In addition, Serfass and his team of current and former graduate students are developing a conservation plan to make sure they thrive. Serfass has drafted a national Otter Action Plan, based on his research, that is designed to protect the habitat otters depend on for survival, which in turn benefits related species like fish, waterfowl and other species that are part of the same web of survival.
His efforts in Africa are focused on two species of otter there, the Cape Clawless Otter and the Spotted-Necked Otter, which are specific to Kenya and Tanzania. Otters in Africa have become a priority for the World Conservation Union because so little research has been done there.
He has developed a relationship with Kenyatta University and its faculty in Kenya, where he is an adjunct faculty member. A colleague at Kenyatta, Mordy Ogada, who spoke at FSU last year, is helping Serfass develop a field class for FSU students in Kenya, and Serfass has developed a number of other relationships with faculty and students.
“The connection with faculty over there hopefully will be long-lived,” Serfass said.
Research is focused on a variety of places in north central Kenya and part of Lake Victoria. The mixed effort, merging conservation and research, is using the adorable, fascinating otters to draw attention to aquatic habitats. Local people and area students are getting involved, with the desire of using the otter to boost their local economies with eco-tourism.
One of the most fertile locations for eco-tourism is in Tanzania, Rubondo Island National Park in Lake Victoria. The Tanzania National Park Service is trying to promote eco-tourism there, inviting tourists to see their hippos, crocodiles, elephants -- and otters.
“It's a magnificent gem – very few people visit it or know about it,” Serfass said. “It’s one of the best bird watching locations I've ever encountered
Serfass’ first year under the Elkins Professorship was spent developing these projects, and the second year’s funds have been used to continue his work. The Professorship provided $80,000 in its first year and $75,000 in the second year.
“I couldn’t have done this without the Elkins. Now I need to find continuing funding support,” he said. He would like to spend at least five years on project in Africa to do it justice, he said.
And Serfass hasn’t forgotten about otters elsewhere. He’s also been testifying in New Mexico, where they’re trying to start a river otter program; working with the Pittsburgh Zoo, which developed a large part of its educational center around his work with otters; and working on educational materials for Yellowstone National Park. Plus, after having six of his graduate students finish in one year, he’s now on the hunt for a new crew to continue the research in North Dakota and Africa.
Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of 13 institutions in the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland.
For more information about Serfass’ research, call the FSU Department of Biology at (301) 687-4166. For more information about FSU, call Admissions at (301) 687-4201 or visit www.frostburg.edu.