Studies following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska indicated that river otters (Lontra canadensis) from oiled regions displayed symptoms of degraded health, including reduced body weight. We examined the fate of ingested oil in the digestive tract and its effects on gut function in captive river otters. Fifteen wild-caught males were assigned to three groups, two of which were given weathered crude oil in food (i.e., control, 5 ppm day(-1), and 50 ppm day(-1)) under controlled conditions at the Alaska Sealife Center. Using glass beads as non-specific digesta markers and stable isotope analysis, we determined the effects of ingested oil on retention time and nutrient uptake. Our data indicated that oil ingestion reduced marker retention time when we controlled for activity and meal size. Fecal isotope ratios suggested that absorption of lipids in the oiled otters might have been affected by reduced retention time of food. In addition, a dilution model indicated that as much as 80% of ingested oil was not absorbed in high-dose animals. Thus, while the ingestion of large quantities of weathered crude oil appears to reduce absorption of oil hydrocarbons and may alleviate systemic effects, it may concurrently affect body condition by impacting digestive function.
Noninvasive methods were validated for monitoring fecal metabolites of reproductive hormones (total estrogens and progestagens) in sea otters. Several captive female sea otters were sampled an average of two to three times per week over at least 1 year to document the reproductive hormone levels within each major reproductive event (estrus, anestrus, luteal phase, and pregnancy). We report significant differences in reproductive hormone levels consistent with most reproductive categories, as well as the minimal number of consecutive samples needed to accurately determine pregnancy using these methods.