Research ProjectChesapeake Bay Otter Alliance

Chesapeake Bay Otter Alliance

  • Parasitic worms from river otter

    Parasitic worms found in fecal matter left by river otters. Photo credit: K. McDonald

  • Evidence of a river otter latrine

    River otters congregate around latrine areas, leaving behind evidence of their presence, diet, and parasites. Photo credit: K. McDonald

  • River otter scat

    DNA and undigested bits from fecal matter, or scat, left behind by river otters can tell us about their population size, diet, and health. Photo Credit: K. McDonald

Project Goal

To promote the North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) as a flagship species for coastal conservation and a sentinel species for ecosystem and public health.


In coastal areas where the land meets the sea, humans continue to increase in population size, thus necessitating new approaches to conservation and public health efforts in these areas. Using a charismatic semi-aquatic mammal to introduce and promote conservation and health-related issues, we hope to engage with local communities across the Chesapeake Bay, especially BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities, to provide STEM learning and research opportunities for all ages. 


River otters possess several characteristics that make them an ideal flagship and sentinel species. Despite being a little elusive and nocturnal, river otters are playful, social animals that are also top predators in the Chesapeake Bay. Along the shore they use special places called “latrines” to not only defecate, but also eat, urinate, and, most importantly, communicate. Their charismatic nature and important ecological roles make them an excellent flagship species. As a sentinel species, their status as an apex predator means that on their scat can inform predator-prey dynamics, provide insight on prey diversity, and food web interactions, including parasites that move through the food web (i.e., digenetic trematodes). Second, they are hosts for multiple parasites that infect both people and wildlife (e.g., Giardia spp., Toxoplasma gondii) and are sensitive to several environmental toxins, including many that are hazardous to human health (e.g., mercury, PCBs). Lastly, they are an accessible species for scientists to study. Researchers can identify latrines along the shoreline, then set up game cameras and collect scat from these locations to generate extensive data on river otter biology and ecology without causing any harm to the animals. These characteristics make river otters a compelling species for education, research, and conservation activities. 

We are developing the Chesapeake Bay Otter Alliance (CBOA), including experts in river otter ecology (Thomas Serfass, Kelly Pearce), genomics (Klaus Koepfli), parasite and disease ecology (Katrina Lohan, Anna Phillips), fisheries and estuarine ecology (Matthew Ogburn), veterinary medicine (James Hassell), education (Karen McDonald, SERC Education), and citizen science (Alison Cawood) from SERC, the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Frostburg State University, the Arundel Rivers Federation, Allegheny College, and private citizens. Our list is constantly growing and we are always looking for new partners! If you are interested in joining our alliance, please email Katrina Lohan at


Flagship species: a species that is selected to be a symbol for a defined habitat, ecosystem, or environmental cause. 

Sentinel species: a species used to detect risks to humans by providing advance warning of a health threat