These furry, slick creatures are often met with human squeals, followed by a flurry of photo taking whenever they are present. Otters belong to the weasel family, and the earliest otter fossils have aided the conclusion that otters actually existed 3.8 million years ago, thanks to a brand-new fossil discovery in Idaho in June this year. Of the 13 extant otter species, the Indian smooth-coated otter, Lutra perspicillata, has graced Singapore waters in recent years.

otter anatomy

Profile of Indian smooth-coated otters

This otter species is the biggest in Southeast Asia, with a length of 1 to 1.3 metres, including its tail, and weighs up to 11 kilograms. They inhabit mangroves and coastal areas like Marina Bay, Sungei Buloh, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park and Pulau Ubin, where freshwater is plentiful. These delightful creatures are not located permanently in one place and can travel between Johor and Singapore using the Johor Strait.

They are distinguishable by their round heads, a long but flat tail, a furry short-haired coat as well as a large, pointed snout – which sums up its adorable appearance. With a streamlined body, these agile otters can zip through the water swiftly, powered by their long tail, and by bobbing their heads up and down, surface for breaths in between. They have five webbed fingers per paw for gripping their prey firmly. Generally, otters are not solitary critters. They are seen in pairs or more often in family groups, and are active in the morning and at night.

Playful creatures with habitual behaviours

All work and no play makes a dull otter. Otters are termed “playful” as the adults are known to play alongside their young, to cultivate relationships and improve coordination in the offspring. Besides romping around, smooth-coated otters are known to engage in “group rubbings”, partly to clean their furry coats and also to strengthen family bonds.

The amount that these smooth-coated species eat to survive is roughly 25 percent of their body weight. While they have a strong preference for fish, their diet varies depending on which prey is abundant and easier to catch, including frogs, turtles and large birds. These fun-loving creatures can live on land or in water interchangeably; hence they will scour for habitats like shallow den burrows or more permanent burrows near damp areas surrounding water, where they will grow their brood.

To stake a claim on their territories, smooth-coated otters leave spraint (droppings of an otter) in designated areas, which comes in the form of their sweet, musky faeces, consisting of fish bones and scales, sometimes fur, feather and insect fragments bound by a black, sticky mucus when fresh.

The complications of having multiple partners pose no issues for smooth-coated otters, which are known to have only one partner throughout their lifespan of around 10 years. Once reaching sexual maturity at two years old, these monogamous pairs start procreating once a year and produce from two to five pups, after an incubation period of around two months.

"Besides romping around, smooth-coated otters are known to engage in “group rubbings” partly to clean their furry coats and also to strengthen family bonds." © 123rf.com

“Besides romping around, smooth-coated otters are known to engage in ‘group rubbings’, partly to clean their furry coats and also to strengthen family bonds.” © 123rf.com

Life-threatening dangers

Otters were hunted for their fur in the 1700s. In ancient times, a mixture of darts, arrows and traps were placed around regular the haunts of otters. These brutal methods were extended to the pups, whose distress calls will lure their parents and all are captured in one fell swoop. Even though guns could efficiently kill otters by the truckload, traps were preferred because the otters’ prized coats could be preserved. These furry skins were reserved for the elite and royalty to wear as garments or accessories.

Apart from these senseless killings, otters also died from human negligence like oil spills, developing health complexities such as hypothermia, kidney failure or parasite infections. Depending on the toxicity of the oil, the chemicals can cause irritation of the sensitive membranes around the eyes, nose, mouth and urinary system. By nature, otters cuddle and rub each other; seemingly harmless blobs of oil can spread rapidly among the pack, leading to the contamination of internal organs.

Otters are prey for a variety of animals in the wild; pups and aged otters are vulnerable to creatures like crocodiles, medium-sized cats like coyotes, and mountain lions.

Conservation efforts and status

Occasional sightings of a family of smooth-coated otters in Singapore, called the Bishan10, have led to the creation of a fan base where observers can share their whereabouts as reference for other otter enthusiasts. It is heartening to see the public showing greater concern for otters’ welfare – from the courageous act of saving a drowning pup to rallying people to look out for the otter that had a fishhook stuck near its eye. ACRES (Animal Concerns Research & Education Society) and National Parks are committed to protecting this vulnerable species by educating the public on the do’s and don’ts.

An AVA (Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority) spokesperson has clarified that otters are protected under the Wild Animals and Birds Act in Singapore. If any person kills or domesticate otters without an AVA license, the culprit will be prosecuted & fined up to SGD$1000 upon conviction.

If there is an act of animal cruelty, the first-time offender can be fined up to SGD$15,000, jailed up to 18 months, or both. For subsequent offences, the maximum penalty is SGD$30,000, jail term of up to 3 years or both.

To get involved, visit OtterWatch.