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Program in Ecology Research in the News

A River Otter's Hot Spot? The Latrine

Originally published September 19, 2016 on NYTimes.com

River otters on the coast of Alaska lead unusual lives. For the males, much of their social life centers on a shared bathroom area.
Other animals, like honey badgers and meerkats, also share bathroom sites, called latrines. And they pick up information about other members of their species from the scents left there.
River otters, which are in the same family as sea otters but a different genus, not only pick up information from scat and urine and anal gland emissions, but have all sorts of social interactions around the bigger latrines.
Adi Barocas, a doctoral student at the University of Wyoming, has been studying river otters as part of a project that the university has had going for about 25 years. It began shortly after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the Alaskan coast.
The project involves research on many aspects of otter life, including how they form social groups. Among coastal river otters, which are different from more inland populations, the males live and forage for fish in fluid groups of as few as four otters or as many as 18. Females are solitary, and males leave their groups during mating season to find females.
When the males are together, however, they play and groom each other and, before they defecate, often do what Mr. Barocas describes as “the poop dance.”
In videos taken by cameras set up near latrines, the male otters wave their back ends rhythmically, stepping from one hind foot to the other.
Exactly what the poop dance means isn’t clear, Mr. Barocas said. But he and Merav Ben-David, his adviser, and other researchers, reported in the October issue of Animal Behaviour, that the interactions at the latrines are helping the males decide which groups to join. They may be learning, for example, which otters are catching more fish, from chemical clues in the scat.
One thing made clear in the many hours of video: These otters give new meaning to the term “party pooper.”

World’s rarest antelope GPS collared for first time

January 25, 2013

Abdullahi Ali, Program in Ecology student at the university of Wyoming, conducts research on hiorla

Hirola can now be monitored in an attempt to save this critically endangered species A FIRST ever attempt to GPS collar wild hirola in their native range has been hailed a success by conservationists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

A total of nine animals were identified by field-workers in Kenya who spent eighteen months monitoring their habitat. Seven herds of hirola were identified between Boni Forest and the Tana River in north-eastern Kenya. Adult hirola were carefully captured and GPS collars fitted before they were left to roam free once again.

Cath Lawson, ZSL’s EDGE Programme coordinator says: “Hirola is an EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species - one of the most unique and threatened animals on the planet. Over the past thirty years numbers have plummeted by almost 90 percent, and they continue to decline.

“As the sole representative of its group, the loss of the hirola would be the first extinction of a mammalian genus on mainland Africa in more than 100 years,” Cath added.

GPS collars were fitted to at least one individual per herd, allowing conservationists to record vital information on population growth, group movements and behaviours.

Conservationists in the field work closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service and local communities to locate hirola herds by distinguishing the footprints and faeces of hirola from those of other ungulates found in the same area.

There are an estimated 400-500 hirola living today, but these animals continue to be severely threatened by some combination of drought, predation, poaching, and habitat loss.

Abdullahi Ali, Program in Ecology student at the university of Wyoming, conducts research on hiorlaZSL’s EDGE Fellow and University of Wyoming doctoral student Abdullahi Hussein Ali (pictured left, in teal shirt) says: “GPS radio-collars record one location every three hours throughout the year, and provide us with vital information on movement patterns which we wouldn’t otherwise get.

“Because of the elusive nature of the hirola, identifying different herds for collaring was not an easy task. This particular habitat had also recently been hit by drought, so it made our job harder as it caused the hirola to disperse further in search of greener pastures,” Ali added.

The GPS collars will drop off remotely in June 2014. Results from this study will provide much-needed information on the basic ecology and natural history of the hirola. This will form the basis of developing conservation efforts and monitoring of this rare and beautiful antelope in north-eastern Kenya.

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