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Study reveals disease-causing parasites in dead otters

15 Mehefin 2013

Research undertaken by the Cardiff University Otter Project has revealed a number of disease-causing parasites in the bodies of dead otters. Members of the public are invited to observe and discuss these findings, as well as other areas of their research, at the National Museum of Wales, Saturday 15 June, as part of the BBC Summer of Wildlife event.

Spread by cat faeces and present in 39.5% of otters examined was Toxoplasma gondii - the most insidious of the parasites. Findings showed that the infection was prevalent across many areas of the UK, with significantly more cases arising in the East. How this affects otters is yet to be determined – further investigation in this area is planned - but in humans the parasite can lead to miscarriage and retinal abnormalities.

Parasitic flatworms were found in 18.3% of otters – these could be divided into two species: Pseudamphistomum truncatum and Metorchis albidus. The former flatworm is native to Eastern Europe and infects a range of wild carnivores; both are associated with pathological damage to the otter gall bladder. Dissections of affected otters revealed gall bladders to be inflamed or thickened. Both parasites can infect any fish eating mammal – including humans.

A species of tick called Ixodes hexagonus was found in nearly a quarter of otters (24.3%). Up to 122 ticks per otter were identified. More ticks were found on younger otters than adults. Scientists reason that this is likely due to younger otters tending to spend more time in the holt (an otter den). As otters are common carriers of this tick, this may have implications for vector-borne diseases, which can infect humans and their companion animals.

Speaking of these findings, Dr Elizabeth Chadwick said:

"The project’s research on the parasites that infect otters has revealed previously unknown aspects of their distribution and ecology. Continued work is necessary to help us to better understand their transmission pathways and the impacts that they have on otters, other wildlife and human health. "

Visitors to the museum will also learn how otters are used by scientists as indicators of environmental contamination. Members of the Otter Project will be on hand to show how otters can reveal evidence of long term declines in organochlorine pesticides and PCBS and can provide monitoring data for fire retardants and metals – all of which can affect human health.  Recent findings revealed a decline in the size of male otters’ reproductive organs, and suggested potential links between hormone disrupting chemicals in the environment, and reproductive health. This work illustrates the value of the otter as a sentinel for contaminants, and the risks they pose to human health.

Members of the public will also be encouraged to learn about how otters communicate by the smell of their spraint. By analysing otter scent, researchers have uncovered the complex nature of scent communication in otters, and demonstrated that scent differs between individuals, with reproductive cycle, with country of origin, and with genotype.

Cardiff University’s Project Splatter will also be unveiled at the event, where people will be encouraged to become a ‘Splatter Spotter’. The project aims to reduce wildlife road casualties in the UK using data supplied by the public. Project Splatter collects UK wildlife road casualty data via Twitter and Facebook with a view to identify roadkill hotspots. By collating data across the country, researchers can identify roadkill 'hotspots' for future mitigation projects and help preserve our wildlife.

The BBC’s Summer of Wildlife event will take place at Gorsedd Gardens opposite National Museum Cardiff and City Hall on Saturday 15 June from 10am to 5pm. The event is free of charge.


Useful links:

Cardiff University Otter Project
Cardiff School of Biosciences

For further information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Tomas Llewelyn Barrett
Public Relations
Cardiff University
Tel: 029 20 875 596
Mobile: 07950792532

About Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University Chancellor Professor Sir Martin Evans.  Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise encompasses: the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences; and the College of Physical Sciences, along with a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff's three flagship Research Institutes are offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places.