Environmentally-conscious PhD student cycles to France for Otter Project research

On December 11 2011, PhD student, Ellie Sherrard-Smith embarked on a mammoth cycling trip to France, in the name of science!


Ellie is based in the Organisms and Environment division of the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University and is in her third year of her PhD. Her research looks at parasites affecting the otter, and is part of the large-scale Cardiff University Otter Project.

The Otter Project is a research program run collaboratively with the Environment Agency. Cardiff University receives around 200 otters each year, found dead across the United Kingdom, mostly as a result of road traffic accidents.

Post-mortem examinations are then performed by the researchers to investigate otter biology and health. The otters can also be used as an indicator of the state of the ecosystems in which they are found.

Tissue samples can be used to investigate the spatial and temporal variation in contaminants found in freshwater, such as pesticides.

Ellie’s work as a research assistant for the Otter Project in 2008 ledher to discovering parasites found in otter gall bladders that she later identified as Metorchis albidus.

Metorchis albidus is a species that has never before been reported in the United Kingdom. The Environment Agency consequently funded an investigation of its distribution, together with a screening for an additional parasite, Pseuamphistomum truncatum, that had previously been identified in otter gall bladders by a Cornish vet a few years ago.

The researchers suspected that the two parasites were ‘invaders’ and not native to the UK. Consequently, for several reasons, it was seen as important to monitor their spread. Firstly, because of the potential impact on otter health. Secondly, because parasites can infect other fish-eating hosts, including humans.

Additionally, this provided a fascinating opportunity to study the parasites themselves and investigate how their spread is affected by their hosts’ biology and environmental factors, such as climate and habitat.

Ellie is researching the origins of the parasite to find out whether they are invaders in the UK or are simply undiscovered natives.

As the parasites have previously been identified across continental Europe, Ellie contacted other researchers across the known range of both parasite areas to try to obtain samples.

From the samples, Ellie intended to extract their DNA and attempt to find a match between our UK parasites and those outside the country. A wide range of countries have sent Ellie the parasites and genetic analyses are now underway.

Franck Simonnet, a collaborator in France, was in possession of a collection of dead otters, but lacked the expertise to find and remove the parasites himself.

Unfortunately, the law and science are at odds as it is illegal to transport otters or their remains between countries (under CITES legislation). Therefore, getting these otters back to Cardiff for post modern was going to be very difficult indeed.

Ellie decided that she would have to travel to France and perform the post-mortems there and remove the specimens back to Cardiff for DNA extraction. While, public transport or driving would seem have seemed like the obvious option for getting to France, Environmentally-conscious and frugal Ellie decided to cycle!

After persuading Sarah Perkins, a Marie Curie Fellow with a shared interest in parasites (and cycling) to accompany her, the pair set offon their bikes, heading to Plymouth for the overnight ferry on the 11th December.

The following day at 8am, they began their 50km cycling journey to Sizun, France, to meet Franck Simonnet at the Groupe MammalogiqueBreton. After a careful examination of 22 otter gall bladders, the girls got back on their bikes for the return trip to Cardiff!

The trip was a great success and gair rhydd congratulates the girls on their substantial efforts and wishes Ellie all the best with her research.

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