Tracking Germany′s Otters | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.07.2002
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Tracking Germany's Otters

Berlin researchers are tracking down some of Germany's last Eurasian otters in the eastern state of Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. They hope to find ways to save this endangered species.

A rare sight in Germany - the Eurasian otter

A rare sight in Germany - the Eurasian otter

"It may not be very pleasant work, but it is highly informative", says Frank Hansen, nature reserve warden in the eastern state of Mecklenberg Pomerania. Hansen has been collecting otters’ droppings now for several weeks. Together with an institute in Berlin, he is on the lookout for some of Germany’s last Eurasian otters.

Only a hundred years ago, the Eurasian otter was a common creature in Europe. Since the turn of the 20th century, the otter has become an increasingly rare sight and is now only occasionally found in countries across central Europe.

In Germany there are thought to be only several hundred left.

Keeping track

With over 100 different scent components, each containing specific information on age, sex and species, the most effective way for otters to communicate is through their droppings. Researchers at the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, therefore, are hoping to track down some of the last of this endangered animal by extracting the otters’ genetic fingerprints - from its droppings. This in turn may help scientists recommend ways to save the species.

According to Project Leader Beate Kalz, the results have so far proved successful. "We have identified 21 different animals from the first 28 samples", she says. "We hope to find out whether there are enough animals in the park, and whether enough animals survive to maintain the population."

Marine mammal

The otter, which belongs to the family of badgers and weasels, spends most of its time in water - both fresh and seawater. Not only does it eat, sleep and hunt in water – it even gives birth in it.

In addition, otters are one of the few predators that hunt their prey under water.

But the increasing pollution of Germany’s waters with pesticides and PCBs has had a severe impact on the otters’ main source of food, fish, and the straightening of rivers has destroyed numerous examples of the otter's natural habitats.

In addition, a dramatic increase in road traffic has contributed to the drastic reduction in otters. In Mecklenburg alone, around 100 otters were killed on the state’s busiest streets in the past years.

Additional protection

The Institute hopes to determine the otters’ various territories in Mecklenburg with the help of their newest research technique. By finding out just which otters cross which main roads, they hope to justify additional funds for otter protection – such as underground tunnel systems which would enable the animals to cross them without being run over.

"Through these studies, we want to assess the extent to which the otters are threatened by traffic. After all, protection projects like building road underpasses for instance, or wide bridges have to be financed, and are very expensive. So we need hard data to show what role road kills have on the otters," Kalz says.

Inspiration from abroad

The Berlin Institute may look beyond borders for inspiration and hope for Germany’s otter population: In California, the otter population was almost wiped out due to a blooming otter fur trade in the 18th and 19th century. By the early 1900s, the Californian sea otter was believed to be extinct, until 1938, when a last remaining population was discovered living off the Californian Big Sur coast.

Since then, with the help of various environmental groups and otter protection measures, the population has gradually expanded. Today, there are said to be 2,000 animals living in the area, and the number is growing.