CASE partner with Cardiff University, a 3 year Phd study utilising DNA and scent technology started in January 2016. What drives change in population structure? Dispersal, home range, and landscape barriers to the otter Lutra lutra, across the UK. Field work will take place on the River Tone.


Summary: CASE Studentship with Cardiff University


What drives change in population structure? Dispersal, home range, and landscape barriers to the otter Lutra lutra, across the UK.


Keywords: Otter, genetics, landscape ecology, spatial analysis.


Duration of project: 3 years.


Start date of project: January 2016.


Names and affiliations of supervisors.  

Dr Elizabeth A Chadwick (School of Biosciences, Cardiff University) (supervisor from a GW4 University),

Prof. Robbie Mcdonald (Exeter University) (Supervisor from a GW4 University)

Prof Mike Bruford ((School of Biosciences, Cardiff University) (supervisor from a GW4 University)


Description of project

Studies of genetic structure in natural populations of terrestrial species usually focus on assessments at a single time point, often failing to capture temporal population dynamics. The Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) suffered continental scale declines during the 1950s-70s, from which it is now recovering. In the UK, previous research suggests considerable sub-structuring, with 4 major groupings, likely to have arisen from geographically separated remnant populations (Hobbs et al 2011; Stanton et al 2014). These subpopulations are now largely contiguous, and it is likely that the degree of admixture reflects (i) the permeability of landscape barriers, (ii) the otter’s home range, and (iii) dispersal distances from natal sites. Little is known about any of these elements.

This proposal aims to use molecular techniques to investigate recent changes in otter population structure over a twenty-year period of recolonisation, at a national scale. In analysing this recolonisation process, it aims to gain new and previously intractable information on otter range and dispersal, and in doing so, examine the permeability of landscape barriers to movement.


The PhD student will

Characterise population structure at 5 year intervals across a twenty year period, using geolocated muscle tissue samples collected across England and Wales

Assess and compare dispersal distances in three distinct regions (SW, E Anglia, and Wales) using genetic relatedness measures to identify parent-offspring and sibling pairs, from tissue samples collected across the same twenty year period.

Identify individual movements and characterise home range size over a three year period, using spraint samples collected from the River Tone in Somerset. In addition to molecular analyses, the student will use novel chemical analysis of volatiles in scent material (Kean et a xxx) to distinguish juveniles from adults.

Identify landscape barriers to otter movement, using data from (1) and (2).

Extensive sample and data collections are already available from Cardiff University’s long-term Otter Project ( Specifically, the project holds an archive of muscle tissue samples collected from >2000 individual otters, collected from known place/time points across England and Wales since 1994. Microsatellite data are already held for previously collected samples. In addition, partnership with the Somerset Otter Group provides considerable local expertise and the assistance of a well established volunteer network, as well as access to genetic data from spraint collected in 2000 (identifying 14 individual ranges), and annual surveys repeated every year since.

This is an attractive project addressing novel questions and providing diverse training opportunities within well-established teams, working on a charismatic European protected species.


Training opportunities:

 This project will deliver interdisciplinary training in several areas, primarily, whole animal biology and ecology, molecular genetics and bioinformatics, analytical chemistry, statistical modelling and spatial analyses:


Molecular analysis & Bioinformatics: Training in PCR/bioinformatics etc – at Cardiff , in our world leading genetics laboratory. Training in individual identification from spraint will be provided in partnership with the Waterford Institute of Technology, with Dr Catherine O’Reilly.


Analytical chemistry: Training in sampling of VOCs on thermal desorption tubes and subsequent analysis on TD-GC-MS-TOF will be carried out at Cardiff University, under the guidance of Dr C Muller who has extensive expertise in the analysis of volatiles in an ecological context.


Dissection and anatomy: New samples (in addition to those already in store) will be collected by the student at Cardiff University as part of the activities of the Otter

Project, where the student will receive training in anatomy, pathology and dissection techniques as well as sample and data curation from Otter Project PI Dr E Chadwick.


Ecological survey: The student will work with our CASE Partner, Somerset Otter Group, and will receive training in field survey methods for otter populations.


Statistical and spatial analysis: At Exeter and Cardiff, the student will receive training in the statistical analysis of extensive wildlife survey data, spatial analysis, using ArcMap GIS and SatScan, and statistical modelling using ‘R’.

Added value:

  • This is a cross-institutional project, building on established and on-going interests in Cardiff and Exeter Universities.
  • The project benefits from an established partnership with Somerset Otter Group, who have agreed to act as CASE partner. SOG are an extremely active volunteer group, and have previously provided support for two successful PhD studentships at Cardiff; one as CASE partner to a NERC funded project examining biliary parasites, and another providing volunteer support for spraint collection as part of a study of scent communication. The River Tone is one of the best studied otter populations in the UK, with 14 years of annual spraint survey data.
  • The project offers the potential to deliver a major advancement to our knowledge of the processes that drive population structure in a mobile semi-aquatic predator. Given the otter’s status as an EU protected species, there is considerable interest from a conservation perspective.
  • The otter is a charismatic European protected species with considerable appeal; the project is highly novel with training opportunities across a range of techniques. It is therefore expected to attract a large number of highly competitive applicants.