A new British study has found abnormalities in the reproductive organs of otters, and scientists are concerned that chemical pollution may be to blame.
According to a BBC report, researchers were alarmed to find a decrease in the weight of penis bones in river otters in England and Wales; as well as an increase in undescended testicles and the appearance of cysts on sperm-carrying tubes.
The European otter is a popular denizen of the British countryside, as evidenced by its frequent appearances in popular culture through the ages, including as a character in the children's classic The Wind in the Willows and of course by the 1927 novel Tarka the Otter, which was made into a motion picture in 1979.
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As anyone who has read the latter book or seen the movie will recall, however, otters were for many decades hunted in the United Kingdom; that hunting, combined with habitat destruction, declines of inland fish stocks and particularly pollution led to massive declines in otter numbers between the 1950s and late 1970s.
Otter hunting was finally banned in Britain in 1978, and that, combined with the banning of organochlorine pesticides and a general improvement in river quality, has led to a resurgence in otter numbers in England and Wales.
Hence the surprise and concern over the recent findings, which emerged after researchers from the Cardiff University Otter Project and the Chemicals, Health and Environment Monitoring Trust, studied 755 otters found dead between 1992 and 2009 across England. and Wales.
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They looked to see if residuals organochlorine pollutants might be responsible, but found no evidence they were to blame, suggesting that "other factors (potentially including newer pollutants that are not measured here) are driving the observed changes"
The initial suspects, say the scientists are Endochrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), which as their name suggests are known to affect the hormonal and reproductive systems in mammals.
Such chemicals are found in a wide range of products, and if they are responsible for affecting the otters, said Dr Elisabeth Chadwick of Cardiff University Otter project, "it might be things like drugs that we're taking and they flush through our sewage systems and end up in the rivers."