University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

The Lives of Otters

High levels of mercury and lead in fish may not be good for them - or us

Otters are well known for their playful nature, but new research suggests the amphibious mammals may bear grim news about widespread pollution. U of T surgery and physiology professor Carin Wittnich and Michael Belanger, a staff member in the department of surgery and president of the Oceanographic Environmental Research Society, are investigating the level of toxic pollutants in otters – after earlier studies showed alarming levels of mercury and lead in fish populations. Otters, which survive on a diet of fish, may provide important clues about the spread of these pollutants, and how they might affect humans. “Our data has shown that, instead of getting better, the levels of heavy metals and other contaminants are actually going up,” says Wittnich. “There’s obviously cause for concern.” The last major study of this type was done in 1979.

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