Biologists Draw Blood in Forks, WA

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Marine biologists are setting up camp in Forks, Washington, this week to capture some fanged predators. They are definitely cute and they have great hair, but their seafood-breath should cut short any romantic fantasies.

Sea Otter

(Credit: Ron Eby, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.)

We're talking about sea otters, of course.

Researchers from the USGS Pacific Nearshore Project will spend the next three weeks studying the health of local sea otters to assess the condition of Washington’s nearshore ecosystem. The expedition team will set up base camp at the Olympic Natural Resource Center, while the daily sampling missions will depart out of La Push. They'll board the research vessel Tatoosh of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and work the waters near Olympic National Park, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and the Washington Island National Wildlife Refuge.

This is the third trip this summer for the Nearshore Project crew, which has already spent weeks in Southeast Alaska and recently returned from Vancouver Island. They will once again post photos and field journals as they carry out the Washington expedition.

"We'll be temporarily capturing and releasing sea otters for physical exams, biopsies and blood tests, observing sea otter feeding behavior, and collecting samples from fish and other species that hold clues to ecological health,” says Shawn Larson, a Seattle Aquarium sea otter biologist on the August expedition. Larson will assist veterinarian Dr. Mike Murray of the Monterey Bay Aquarium with sea otter biopsies and sample processing, and also conduct otter feeding behavior observations.

And how does blood figure into all this?

Blood and tissue samples drawn from each sea otter will be analyzed with the gene transcription technique developed by WERC, which can show whether a sea otter has been exposed to oil, parasites, disease or other types of stress. The gene transcription analysis will be conducted by scientists Keith Miles and Liz Bowen of WERC Davis Field Station.

Researchers also will extract a tooth sample to determine the age of each sea otter. Rounding out the sea otter health exam are measurements like body girth, dental and gum checks and whisker samples.

Olympic Coast, WA

Olympic Coast, Washington. Credit Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary/NOAA.

“Sea otters are the perfect health indicators of our nearshore waters,” says James Bodkin, the project’s chief scientist and a sea otter biologist at the USGS Alaska Science Center. “They’re entirely dependent on nearshore marine habitats and they are keystone species in kelp forest food webs. Some populations are abundant and stable, while others are either declining or struggling to reach healthy numbers. Can these differences be explained by ocean influences, or by human impacts to the adjacent watersheds? That’s what we’re hoping to learn.”

WERC sea otter biologist Tim Tinker will be sitting out of the Washington capture. Tinker will be attending the 2011 Ecological Society of America conference in Austin, Texas, to present findings on diet specializations by individual sea otters.

-- Ben Young Landis