Signs to look out for and tips for otter spotting
I. Where to look? :
Otters are found in a wide range of habitats all across India. These include, but are not limited to, rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries, mangrove forests, wetlands, paddy fields and swamps. Some otters may be found near coastal regions, as long as they have access to freshwater in order to maintain the condition of their fur.
II. When to look? :
Throughout their ranges, the different otter species activity levels vary depending on the time of day. This is predominantly dependent on prey activity and habitat disturbance. Despite this, we recommend going out in the morning between 6am-10am and the evening from 4pm - sundown, since these are the best times to be on the lookout.
III. What ‘physical signs’ to look out for? :1. Pawprints
As semi-aquatic mustelids, otters have distinctive pawprints showing 5 toes, with most species also having webbing and non retractable claws. These may be found on a variety of different substrates, for example mud or sand, and may not form full paw prints with the webbing often not visible. Look out for these prints on the edges of waterways, banks and verges. Paw prints may also be accompanied with a tail drag line so keep an eye out for this too.
If you are unsure, take a picture and send it to our experts! Here's a good resource on how to take paw print photos.2. Scat
Otters scat (poo) is another very distinguishable sign to look out for when otter spotting and is a clear indicator of whether an otter is utilising the habitat and its resources. Scat is most often found in very visible places along the waterside, as it is used to mark territory. It can be found as a single scat (spraint) or may have multiple scats in a single spot. This area is called a defecation area or latrine site, and may be from a family group or a single otter visiting the same spot again and again.
Don’t assume the scat will be whole as it may have been spread out by the otter ‘poop dance’ or trampled over, and is always under varying weather conditions.
Not all of an otter's diet is digestible, therefore otter scat will show remnants of what the individual has been eating, for example fish bones, crab shell and shrimp exoskeleton. When fresh, a jelly-like mucus may be present. This otter jelly may also be deposited separate to the scat and can be clear or a range of colours, from orange to green and black.
Another distinguishable feature is the smell of scat, it is reasonably fishy but not repulsive, unlike many other carnivore poo (some even say it smells like jasmine tea!). Scat will withhold this smell for a while so if you’re unsure, give it a sniff!
Slide marks, to or from the water, are also a common sign to keep an eye out for and may be found in association to other signs like scat or pawprints. Slides can be seen as flattened vegetation or depressions in the mud or sand as seen below. They can be up to 30cm in width although this may be wider if the slide is well used or has been used by multiple otters.
However, it is worth noting that unless accompanied with another identifiable otter sign, the slide alone cannot directly show that an otter was present. Crocodiles or dogs for example, may make similar marks in vegetation.4. Grooming areas
Other vegetation flattening and substrate marks to look out for are grooming or drying areas. It is vital for an otter to maintain the condition of its two layered fur and to do so, will rub and roll its body and head across the ground. This area can be quite large if a whole family were grooming together. As with the slides, look out for other directly identifiable otter signs to confirm the area was used by an otter. Often otters will groom after they defecate/poo, so if you’ve seen some scat - look for grooming marks!5. Vocalisations
Otters have a wide variety of noisy vocalisations used to communicate between other otters and family members. As they are particularly elusive and may be hidden next to vegetation, you may hear otters before you see them. Using all your senses and listening out for these vocalisations may give away their presence allowing you to stay hidden and observe.
Listen below for just some of the chirps, squeaks and barks that can be heard.