The survival of otters in the UK is under serious threat. A new study has revealed chemical pollution in UK waterways is presenting significant damage to the reproductive systems of local otters endangering the continuation of the species.
The Daily Mail reports the study, conducted by the Chemicals, Health and Environment (CHEM) Trust, the Cardiff University Otter Project and the UK Environment Agency, has shown the reproductive systems of male otters are particularly under threat with chemicals affecting the growth of the mammal’s penises, particularly the weight of the otter’s penis bone, the baculum. The otter population has also seen an increase in instances of undescended testicles and cysts on sperm-carrying tubes.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDC) being flushed into waterways are the likely culprits, Dr. Elizabeth Chadwick of the Cardiff University Otter Project explained to BBC Nature. ECDs are synthetic and naturally derived chemicals designed to alter the hormonal function of mammals. Dr. Chadwick explained the ECDs affecting the otters could have come from a variety of likely sources including from drugs people are taking that pass through the sewerage systems and end up in the rivers. Industrial pollution was also highlighted as a likely cause with pollutants in dust being carried into the atmosphere and flowing into the rivers as rain. Dr. Chadwick indicates these air born pollutants can cover enormous distances and may have come from other countries.
This is not the first time otters have faced a survival threat from chemically polluted waterways. In the 1970s, the otter population in England fell dramatically due to high levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) contaminating otter habitats, mainly from farming pesticides. Since the use of organochloride pesticides has been banned, the number of otters has steadily increased. Dr. Chadwick states the current drop off in otter numbers is not caused by these old chemicals and the mammals are facing an entirely new threat.
The otter is an indicator species, meaning that changes in the health and population of otters can reveal problems that may extend to other environmental situations, including human health issues. The CHEM Trust is currently investigating other instances of water pollution causing the feminization of male animals. The Otter Project is continuing its study into the survival threat of otters, investigating the volume of ECD traces in waterways.