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Live like an otter

A pair of smooth-coated otters resting. Photo: Atul Borker

A pair of smooth-coated otters resting. Photo: Atul Borker  

They are cute and aggressive, enjoy secrecy and love fish. And, their poop smells like jasmine tea

“A family that poops together stays together,” says Atul Borker. “That may as well be the motto of smooth-coated otters.” Spraint, as otter faeces is called, is often said to be aromatic like jasmine tea. The excreta of smooth-coated otters, however, has no floral overtones but instead has a “refreshing” fishy odour, he says with the aplomb of a perfume connoisseur. He ought to know, having sniffed hundreds to gauge their freshness.

Easing themselves at designated sites is hygienic behaviour no doubt, but such latrines are territory markers. To neighbouring clans, the sight and smell mean ‘No Trespassing’. The larger a clan, the longer the stench lasts, and the more dominant the family. But these olfactory warnings don’t always deter others.

With shrinking habitats, even dominant families cannot maintain an exclusive hold over their enclave. Dams, pollution, and sand mining squeeze these semi-aquatic mammals out of many stretches of riverbanks into a few remaining ones. In fact, 95% of smooth-coated otters in Goa live in brackish mangroves, says Borker. Some have colonised a rocky island 10 km offshore of Karwar, where they delight scuba divers. As suitable terrain diminishes, neighbours sneak in when the owners are elsewhere.

Newborn otter pups learn the etiquette of using latrines from their parents and siblings, says the researcher. While older ones poop within a well-defined area, the young go all over the place. As they grow, they take a dump with the others, creating an odorous signpost advertising their family’s domain.

Together they stand

Besides pooping in unison, otters reinforce their familial relationships by physical contact. They rub and roll against one other, and even when they have the space to sprawl out, they pile up together. This bond makes up for their small 10-kg body size, giving them the confidence to take on larger adversaries.

An otter feasting on fish. Photo: Atul Borker

An otter feasting on fish. Photo: Atul Borker  

A would-be poacher learnt this to his chagrin. The overworked and underpaid sand-miner confessed to Borker later that he figured catching an otter pup and selling its hide would earn him a packet. As he approached a youngster through waist-high water, its mother leapt into the river and latched on to his groin. He thrashed his stick but couldn’t connect with the underwater assailant. Only when its offspring swam away to safety did the adult let go. The man was lucky he didn’t suffer any lasting injuries, says Borker. “Otters may look cute, but they can get aggressive when protecting their family.”

These close family ties make the researcher reluctant to study them with radio transmitters as he would have to catch them. He worries the closing door of a trap cage may injure an otter pup following an adult. Darting with tranquilizer is out of the question because the otters could drown.

Identity crisis

Even studying them with camera traps isn’t without challenges. The smooth-coated otters’ identical, uniform grey-brown bodies have no patterns, such as stripes or spots, which make identifying individuals impossible. Borker can’t tell who’s who from the images taken by remote cameras. He can identify only one otter, which he calls Floppy, with certainty because of a tail deformity.

Although they may be indistinguishable, otters don’t behave the same. Over the six years of observing them, Borker realised that science, with its focus on the species as a whole, misses a lot. “It fails to recognise individual personalities and family traits,” he says.

To highlight his point, he describes an otter clan that is street smart. Its members stand on their hind legs along the verge of a village road, watching the traffic before scooting across. Others aren’t as savvy in navigating their way among humans. All these difficulties have held back research, and biologists know little about their secretive lives and how they deal with the world.

“The more you learn about an animal, it makes a mockery of your existing knowledge,” he says. Until a technological breakthrough, Borker is forced to flip through photographs and sniff ‘refreshing’ spraints.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 3:47:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/live-like-an-otter/article30593248.ece

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