Asian small-clawed otter
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Asian small-clawed otters are the smallest of the 13 otter species found worldwide. Their long, sleek and streamlined bodies allow the otters to swim easily through the water. Except for a white throat, a grey-brown to dark brown fur covers their entire body. Under the top layer of water-repellent guard hair, an insulating layer of dense soft fur keeps the otter warm.
Because small-clawed otters have blunt claws that do not extend beyond the foot pad, and unlike other otter species have only partially webbed front paws, they can easily capture prey with their “nimble fingers.” Whiskers that sense water movement and keen eyesight helps the otter detect food. They use their sensitive paws to probe in mud and under rocks for shellfish (clams, crabs and mussels). Even though these otters have teeth capable of crushing shells, they bring clams ashore and let the sun dry the shells. When the shells open, the otters feast.
The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists Asian small-clawed otters as near threatened (NT). The wild small-clawed otter population is declining due to habitat destruction, pollution and hunting. The reclaiming of peat swamps, forests and mangroves, and the building of tea and coffee plantations along the hills are destroying the small-clawed otters’ habitats. Pollution is reducing the population of several fish species that otters seek as prey, as well as affecting the otters’ health. Asian hunters seek otters for their pelts and organs, which are believed to have medicinal value.
Scientists call the Asian small-clawed otters an indicator species, meaning the health of the whole ecosystem is connected to the health of the otter population.
Asian small-clawed otters live in female-dominated groups, also known as lodges. A lodge typically consists of four to 12 individuals. In the lodges, otters are social and playful. Couples mate for life and usually produce two litters of two to three pups each year. These family groups stay together with the older siblings helping to raise the younger ones, though they don’t reproduce on their own. The group splits up only when one of the parents dies. Gestation period is about 60 days. The newborns open their eyes at six weeks and begin to swim at nine weeks. Unlike the African spotted-necked otters, Asian small-clawed males help raise the offspring from day one.
These otters are considered to be the most vocal of the 13 otter species. They can emit a dozen or more calls, each with its own distinct meaning such as alarm, greeting and mating calls.
Rice farmers are tolerant of small-clawed otters since the otters feed on crayfish that can damage rice fields. Fishermen train otters to drive fish into nets.