Citizen Science

Citizen Science Tuesday: Otter Spotter

August 12, 2014

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A river otter collects grass to build a nest. Photo courtesy of the River Otter Ecology Project.

What is Otter Spotter?

Are you wild for river otters and passionate about conserving healthy waterways?

Do you enjoy kayaking or spending time near rivers?

You otter be an Otter Spotter!

Otter Spotter is the citizen science project of the River Otter Ecology Project (ROEP) and they need your help to learn more about North American river otters and the ecosystems that they inhabit.

Why is it important?

There are a surprising number of gaps in scientific knowledge of river otter ecology and the current status of populations. ROEP is hoping to fill some of those gaps by collecting and analyzing information collected through Otter Spotter.

And it’s not just about the otters; it’s about the water.

“Our best bet is conservation and restoration of wetlands.  Not only river otters, but countless other species, including humans, rely on healthy wetlands to survive,” Megan Isadore, Executive Director of ROEP remarks.

In fact, she got involved in otter research through learning about aquatic ecology, “When I found out that not only do river otters love to eat salmon and trout, but by pooping on banks, they also help to fertilize the trees and shrubs these fish require to shade their streams, provide habitat for bugs the young salmon eat, and root systems for the fish to hide from predators like…otters! I got very excited.”

“Additionally, river otters tend to go after large fish in eelgrass in our local estuaries.  These larger fish eat the smaller fish who use the eelgrass as a nursery.  So while otters definitely eat fish, they also help protect them until they grow large enough to procreate.  It’s a very neat cycle.”

“Otter Spotter is the first effort to document and map the occurrence of river otters in the SF Bay Area. After being gone for decades, their populations have come back more or less under the radar.  It’s a great example of how cleaning up waterways, restoration projects and eliminating trapping can make a positive difference, even for animals we don’t necessarily know are there,” she adds.

And, like many citizen science projects, Otter Spotter is good for people.

“Everyone can participate! When people participate in environmental stewardship like monitoring, they come to understand and protect our natural world more effectively,” Isadore says.

Volunteers and fans get a chance to learn cool things about otter ecology and biology and directly observe or watch videos of otter behavior.

How do you get involved?

Otter Spotter is currently restricted to the San Francisco Bay Area, though as they build resources they hope to expand. If you live in the Bay Area, you can submit your observations to Otter Spotter.

Before you head out to look for otters, Isadore has some pro tips:

“Otters are out hunting the waterways at any time of the day or night, but are seen most often in the morning and afternoon, less often in the middle of the day.  Look for large ripples on the water, or big bubbles.  They can’t stay under water for more than a few minutes at a time, so you will often see them come up and peek at you.”

“Otters are elusive; if you see one, you’re lucky!  If you don’t see one, keep looking.  You can also look for scat and tracks.  On our website you’ll find an otter spotter guide that will help you recognize otter sign.”

There’s also a guide to otter spotting etiquette that will help keep you and the otters safe.

Your observations will appear on the sightings map.

If you don’t live in the Bay Area, you can share the Otter Spotter poster to raise awareness about the program, donate to ROEP, or find an organization that protects watersheds in your area. As Isadore says:

“The best thing anyone can do to protect otters is, first and foremost, support local conservation and restoration of watersheds.  And of course, eliminating trapping of otters and other aquatic mammals like beavers, is also paramount.  Healthy watersheds make healthy ottersheds!”

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] with information about the project or leave a comment below with a link.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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