In order to learn more about the overall health of the Southern sea otter population, researchers around the country need to analyze a variety of samples.  These samples are not easily accessible to those away from the coast of California.  A collaborative effort between the different institutions and scientists help make this possible.  During Southern sea otter captures in the Monterey or Big Sur areas, I help the various researchers organize and/or collect some of the samples they need for their specific studies.  They are looking at a range of topics such as protozoal infections, DNA, chemical isotopes that indicate foods eaten, fecal pathogens and gene expression to name a few.  And of course, samples taken are in accordance to what the Principal Researcher’s permit allows.

California Department of Fish and Game’s Francesca Batac processing blood samples from a Southern Sea otter in Big Sur, CA on a research vessel in 2010. Photo Credit: Ben Young Landis (USGS)

Although called “blood processing,” the person on this side of the project handles and organizes more than just the blood samples.  Whether it is a whisker sample, buccal (mouth) swabs, etc., the blood processor will collect almost all samples taken from each sea otter.  We ensure it is preserved in the right chemical and/or temperature during captures and the transport back to the facility.  The blood processors will enter the identifying information on these samples into the database to keep thorough records, and either archive or send out the samples to the respective researcher.   Our database allows us to record the otter’s age, sex, tag numbers, and the location and date when they were sampled.  It also records details such as sample type, amount collected and freezer location of samples from previous captures.  One sea otter’s samples can help a study today and another 10 years from now.

Keeping the many samples organized is not as easy as it might seem.  From securing the supplies to storage needs and sample transport, everything needs to be pre-planned and well thought out.  Inadequate or not enough supplies can slow down processing and keep the sea otter under anesthesia longer than necessary.  Improper storage can render a sample useless, thus wasting everyone’s time and effort.  If careless, the blood processor can mislabel items that could result in sending a researcher someone else’s samples.  If you find that the blood processor seems to be overly meticulous and a touch crabby, it is for good reason.

It all starts with contacting the researchers and getting to know their study and samples.  Once we know all the samples for captures and their storage needs, we can start prepping supplies and writing protocols.  At the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) in Santa Cruz, we construct sample kits that contain everything needed per otter with all the sampling supplies and more.  This will ensure sample collecting goes smoothly and no sample is forgotten.  And after the samples are collected you have to make sure to grab everything so it won’t be misplaced.

CDFG’s mobile veterinary laboratory is stocked with veterinary supplies and filled with the necessary equipment (e.g. centrifuge, dry ice, liquid nitrogen).  The vet lab, for short, acts as a mini-clinic and allows veterinarians to conduct exams, surgeries and radiographs on location.  Although they are used at captures; the main function of the vet lab is for oil spill response for sea otters and/or seabirds.  CDFG and Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) veterinarians can care for oiled, injured or sick animals in remote locations and stabilize them for transport to a larger facility.

Step by step protocols are written for sample collection, sample transport and archiving.  Someone is then designated to each specific task every day during captures.  The protocols are written out so that new or less experienced personnel can complete the task with minimal questions or confusion.  The protocols are thorough and go over equipment layout, sample order, what to do with what sample, necessary forms and prepping for the daily transport.  Blood processing can be daunting, so if possible, an experience person is assigned to the role.

In the end, all this is worth the effort knowing we are learning more about the Southern sea otter population and what is affecting them.  It is also a nice perk to be working on some of the most beautiful and remote locations off California’s Central Coast.

Under the Big Creek Bridge was the staging ground for the land-based Sea Otter captures in Big Sur, CA in 2011.  With CDFG’s mobile veterinary laboratory, veterinarians can conduct examinations and surgeries on location.  Photo Credit: Francesca Batac (CDFG)