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Analysis of the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) reproductive tract: A methods manual

January 1, 2007

Reproduction in the female sea otter, Enhydra lutris, was relatively unstudied until Sinha et al. (1966) examined 140 reproductive tracts collected 1955-62 and used their findings to describe sea otter reproductive anatomy and biology. Two years later Sinha and Conaway (1968) published a more detailed paper on the ovary of the sea otter. These descriptive papers have been used as the basis for all subsequent studies of sea otter reproductive tracts.

During biological collections of sea otters in the 1960s and 70s a large number of female carcasses became available to wildlife biologists. Using Sinha’s research, Schneider (1973) analyzed 1,482 female reproductive tracts to determine the timing of reproduction, gestation period, age of sexual maturity, fetal sex ratio and growth rate of otters in the Aleutian Islands. A similar study was conducted by Bodkin et al. (1993) on a sample of 177 females collected after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Recently (von Biela 2007) examined 134 reproductive tracts obtained from beachcast and harvested otters across the three Alaskan population stocks as part of a Master’s thesis.

As with most life history data, comparisons among and within populations that differ in status relative to equilibrium densities provide useful data with which to test hypotheses about the cause and effects of changes in demographic rates such as reproductive rate. However, in order to make such comparisons, methods used in different periods must be comparable. The purpose of this manual is to explicitly describe how to collect and analyze sea otter reproductive tracts for the determination of reproductive rate, pregnancy rate, percentage of mature females, and timing of reproduction so that the data will be directly comparable to that collected in the past. The techniques presented in this manual have been used to study sea otter populations over the last 50 years, and maintaining such consistency is essential to comparisons in the future.

This manual is based on the methods of previous researchers and draws heavily on the published and unpublished works of James Bodkin, Karl Kenyon, Calvin Lensink, Daniel Mulcahy, Karl Schneider, and Akhouri Sinha. Most invaluable to the production of this manual were the direct communications with Karl Schneider and Dan Mulcahy. In each instance, researchers have communicated with each other to attain comparable methods. Recognizing that researchers in the future may not have this luxury, this guide has been produced to preserve the technique. In addition to using this manual, researchers should consult with colleagues experienced in the analysis of mammalian reproductive tracts, preferably specific to sea otters. Individuals are encouraged to contact V. von Biela with any questions.

Sea otter reproductive tracts have most commonly come from either intentional sampling through harvests (Sinah et al. 1966, Schneider 1975) or unintentional large scale mortalities (e.g. the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill) (Bodkin et al. 1993). Carcasses and reproductive tracts can also be obtained through the collection of fresh beach cast carcasses. Analysis of reproductive tracts should consider the source of carcasses as samples representing either the “living” or “dead” sea otter population, as they may differ in reproductive parameters. In most cases the reproductive tracts are fixed in formalin or frozen (minimum of –20˚C) immediately after collection; both methods are acceptable for later analysis of the tissue. Immediate fixation is preferred as it is a necessary step in analysis. Uteri and ovaries are then examined to determine the current and past reproductive history of each individual. This manual also includes an example datasheet (Appendix A) and glossary (Appendix B). 

Publication Year 2007
Title Analysis of the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) reproductive tract: A methods manual
Authors Vanessa R. von Biela, Verena A. Gill
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Series Title Technical Report
Series Number MMM 2007-002
Index ID 70174216
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center