Understanding how species’ traits and genetic variation are related to their survival and ability to deal with change is important to being able to predict their responses to human-induced environmental changes. Graduate student Danaan DeNeve is working to disentangle the relationship between traits, genetic diversity, and niche breadth/stability in several species of river otters.
She is using a variety of techniques to approach this issue: Species distribution models are being used to determine niche characteristics. Danaan is collecting whisker and bone samples from modern and historical otters for genetic and isotopic analysis and will be taking morphological measurements for geometric morphometric analysis. The genetic and morphological data will be used to determine how much genetic variation there is within a species, if it varies across populations, and if there are genetic patterns that correspond with ecologically significant morphometric traits. The isotopic data will be used to establish how otter diets change along spatiotemporal environmental gradients to determine the role diet plays in determining niche breadth. Specimens are primarily from museum collections and range from 150 to five years old, thus capturing a timeframe of relatively “natural” landscapes to those significantly impacted by human alteration.