Animal decisions and conservation: the recolonization of a severely polluted river by the Eurasian otter


Miguel Delibes, Doñana Biological Station, Department of Conservation Biology, CSIC, Avenida de María Luisa s/n, 41013 Sevilla, Spain. Tel: +34 954 232340; Fax: +34 954 621125


Animals make decisions relying on environmental cues associated to high survival or breeding success along their evolutionary history. However, because of rapid anthropogenic changes in the environment, they may lack useful cues, making bad decisions with potential consequences for individuals and populations. Contaminants are difficult or impossible to detect for animals, so polluted habitats could be used in spite of their dangerous effects. The Eurasian otter Lutra lutra reoccupied the Guadiamar River (SW Spain) <1 year after a toxic spill that killed the fauna living in it. The levels of heavy metals and arsenic (As) in the river trophic web at that moment were probably harmful for otters. To investigate this, we determined the amount of several heavy metals including copper, cadmium, zinc (Zn) and lead (Pb) and metalloids such as As in otter faeces and estimated the exposure of otters to these elements as average ingestion. Concentrations of Zn, Pb and As were statistically higher in faeces collected along the Guadiamar River than in those collected along the Guadalete River (reference area). An ‘average otter’ in the Guadiamar River would consume 3–4 mg of Pb and more than 5 mg of As daily. Such doses must be hazardous for the species and challenge the usual assertion that otter presence is a good indicator of river quality.