If you've seen a river otter recently, Alana Chin wants to know.
The adjunct professor at American River College founded the Sacramento Valley Otter Project last month, and she's taking a citizen-science approach to researching the local animals.
"Otters are elusive," she said. "To study something as sneaky as an otter requires all hands on deck."
So far about 40 people have submitted otter sighting reports through the project's website, www.arc.losrios.edu/otters.
River otters - water weasels about half the size of sea otters - joined some state endangered species lists with urbanization in the 1900s.
But with cleaner water and reintroduction efforts, river otters have flourished; and Chin believes the Sacramento region has one of the largest populations in the state.
They've been most commonly seen in Putah Creek and most surprisingly in irrigation canals, as well as in the American and Sacramento rivers and the Yolo Bypass.
They are believed to eat lots of crayfish and to travel in groups of up to six. The more otters, the healthier the habitat, Chin said. Still, she said, researchers know little about the aquatic carnivores' overall diet, reproduction or behavior.
Paying close attention to these aquatic carnivores in the region can help habitat conservation efforts elsewhere and pay dividends for other aquatic species, including some birds, fish and insects, Chin said.
The Otter Project consists of Chin and six interns who visit habitats and collect data. There is no funding and a single kayak to do the work, so Chin said she needs hundreds of reports if she hopes to eventually publish her research.
"A project like this takes a lot of data," she said. "Our data is only as good as the public's participation."
Chin patterned her endeavor after another citizen science project organized by Humboldt State University's department of wildlife, where she researched as a graduate student years ago.
In the Humboldt project's first five years, 709 river otter sightings were submitted.
Call The Bee's Janelle Bitker, (916) 321-1027. Follow her in Twitter @JanelleBitker.