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Become an Otter Spotter for new community science project

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor

Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

We've heard stories of river otter sightings during hiking trips or kayak voyages, and some Northwesterners have even spotted otters while simply walking the dog. If you have ever observed a wild river otter in Washington state—or if you encounter one on your next outdoor adventure—we want to hear from you. Become an Otter Spotter and submit your sightings to our new community science initiative, part of our Living Northwest conservation program.

We're collecting data on otter sightings across Washington as we launch a new research project that takes a closer look at the state's virtually unstudied river otter populations. Led by Michelle Wainstein, PhD, a local ecologist and conservationist, the research project—River Otters of Western Washington: Sentinels of Ecological Health—has a special focus on one of Washington's most used waterways.

Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

The Green River flows from undeveloped Washington wildland through increasingly urbanized areas to become the Duwamish River—Seattle’s major industrial corridor since the early 1900s. Along the 65+ mile route, the North American river otter can serve as a telling indicator of the health of this critical waterway.

The Lower Duwamish Waterway (LDW)—the final 5 miles of the river as it empties into Puget Sound—has a complex history and challenging future. The US Environmental Protection Agency has identified the LDW as a Superfund site for environmental remediation in response to long-term industrial pollutant exposure and urgent concern about contaminant levels.

An evening ride down the Duwamish River. Photo: Woodland Park Zoo.

Studying the population trends of river otters and the toxins in their scat along the length of the Green-Duwamish River will establish a baseline understanding of the contaminant load under a range of conditions, including the current polluted state of the LDW. Such empirical data can help inform long-term studies and shape conservation strategies as remediation efforts continue at the Superfund site.

Your Otter Spotter reports will expand on this knowledge, allowing us to build a bigger understanding of otter range and behavior across Washington state.

Anyone can participate! You don't need to be a scientist or wildlife expert to be an Otter Spotter. To demonstrate just how fun and easy it can be to log an observation through the Otter Spotter program, researcher Michelle Wainstein gave the data form a test drive with Woodland Park Zoo ZooCorps teen volunteers today. River otters Duncan and Ziggy went about their morning diving, swimming and chasing after breakfast, while the teens filed observations about the best buds.

ZooCorps teens enter their otter observations into an Otter Spotter form. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

The Otter Spotter form is mobile friendly if you are filling it out on the go. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Michelle Wainstein, far right, joins the ZooCorps crew on the roof overlooking the zoo's Northen Trail exhibit. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Your observations in the wild may not always be as complete as what we practiced at the zoo today, but any information helps! Familiarize yourself with the Otter Spotter data form so you know what kind of details we'll be looking for, from location and conditions, to photos and descriptions.

Before you head out, here are some helpful tips for being a productive Otter Spotter in the field:

Otter Spotter Tips and Etiquette

  • Respect all posted signs and property lines when otter spotting.
  • If you spot an otter, please observe from a safe distance. Do not approach or harass the otters.
  • Take only photos and notes, never resources or materials from the area of your sighting.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and stay safe, especially when navigating waterways or areas with low visibility.
  • Be prepared with helpful gear including binoculars, camera and/or notebook and pen for recording observations, and GPS detector or app.
  • Not sure if you've seen a river otter or a sea otter? Use these helpful tips from Seattle Aquarium to tell them apart.

This new project is part of Woodland Park Zoo’s Living Northwest program that supports field conservation projects in the Pacific Northwest. Every time you visit, you help make a wilder Northwest.