November 21, 2017  

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Graduate Student’s Research Project Gains Support from National Geographic

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Southern Miss graduate student Sarah Walkley on the Great Swamp in Pawling, N.Y. looking for river otters. (Photo by Diana Lee, FrOGS.)

Funding awarded by National Geographic to a University of Southern Mississippi graduate student will support a unique research project focused on the communication capabilities of North American river otters.

Sarah Walkley, who is pursuing a doctorate in the USM Department of Psychology’s Brain and Behavior Program, recently earned a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant (YEG). The YEG is awarded to individuals aged 18-25 who are pursuing research, conservation and exploration-related projects. The title of Walkley’s project is “Context Specific Calls of North American River Otters (Lontra canadensis) in the Wild.”  

A native of Westchester, N.Y., Walkley began studying North American river otters in 2014 when she designed and implemented two otter vocalization projects - one to focus on captive otters and one to focus on the elusive wild otter. She says very little research has been done on the vocalizations of the mammal, and even less published.

“It’s my hope that learning more about the vocal repertoires of these animals, in captivity but especially in the wild, will teach us about the role vocal communication plays in their behavior and how repertoires change across different individuals, populations, and species,” she said. “The wild otter project is long-term and spans multiple locations, seasons, and years.”
 
Walkley explains in her project abstract that North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) have a large range, living near bodies of water from Canada to Mexico. They were heavily hunted in the last century but even as their numbers increase, they are still threatened but now more by pollution and habitat loss. Currently, little is known about their vocal behavior in the wild. The research project will explore their call repertoire by recording via audio and video capable trail cameras, with vocalizations analyzed in relation to behavior.

The results of the research will elucidate the communication system of wild North American river otters in the Northeastern United States, exposing both the quantity and quality of their call repertoire. An eventual comparison between the findings here and the findings in captive groups will allow researchers to better understand how vocalizations are used, passed on, or lost in captive groups. With further research, call types can also be compared across regions, populations, and species.

The National Geographic grant will allow for expansion of the wild otter project to more locations. “Otters are hard to find, and additional trail cameras allow us more chances to learn about their secretive and fascinating lives, as well as vocalizations,” she said.

Walkley’s master’s thesis focused on context specific bottlenose dolphin vocalizations. She praised the late Dr. Stan Kuczaj, who was director of the Department of Psychology’s Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory and served as a mentor and advisor for her research; Maria Zapetis for assistance with acoustic analysis for her project; and Dustin Isop for additional help in the field.

“The award is a testament to Sarah, her hard work, her faculty mentor Dr. Stan Kuczaj and the quality of her training in the Department of Psychology,” said Dr. Joe Olmi, department chairman. “We could not be more pleased at the honor bestowed on her, and it is well deserved.”

For information about the USM Department of Psychology, visit https://www.usm.edu/psychology. For information about the College of Education and Psychology, visit https://www.usm.edu/education-psychology.