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Environmental Pollution



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River otter, Persistent organic pollutants, Fecal DNA genotyping, Hormone response, Ecological trap, Coastal contaminated sites

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Productive coastal and estuarine habitats can be degraded by contaminants including persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs, dioxins, and organochlorine insecticides to the extent of official designation as contaminated sites. Top-predatory wildlife may continue to use such sites as the habitat often appears suitable, and thus bioaccumulate POPs and other contaminants with potential consequences on their health and fitness. Victoria and Esquimalt harbours are located on southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia (BC) and are federally designated contaminated sites due mainly to past heavy industrial activities, such as from shipyards and sawmills. We collected scat samples from river otters (Lontra canadensis) throughout an annual cycle, and combined chemical analysis with DNA genotyping to examine whether the harbour areas constituted a contaminant-induced ecological trap for otters. We confirmed spatial habitat use by radio telemetry of a subsample of otters. Fifteen percent of otter scat contained PCB concentrations exceeding levels considered to have adverse effects on the reproduction of mink (Neovison vison), and there were significant positive correlations between concentrations of PCBs and of thyroid (T3) and sex (progesterone) hormones in fecal samples. Radio telemetry data revealed that otters did not show directional movement away from the harbours, indicating their inability to recognize the contaminated site as a degraded habitat. However, analysis and modeling of the DNA genotyping data provided no evidence that the harbour otters formed a sink population and therefore were in an ecological trap. Despite the highly POP-contaminated habitat, river otters did not appear to be adversely impacted at the population level. Our study demonstrates the value of combining chemical and biological technologies with ecological theory to investigate practical conservation problems.



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