Smooth-Coated Otter

Smooth-coated otter is the largest otter in Asia, and like all otters it has a long, thick body, short legs, and webbed feet with sharp claws. The neck is as wide as the body and head. The ears are set low on the domed head, but the small, round eyes are set high up and wide apart. The muzzle is short and covered in thick whiskers. The fur is thick and velvety with two layers; the guard fur keeps the underfur dry underwater to retain body heat. To help with swimming, the smooth-coated otter’s front legs are shorter than the back legs and it has a thick, conical tail that is more flattened than other otters, particularly at the end.

The smooth-coated otter attains sexual maturity at 22 months. Breeding takes place from August to December and the smooth-coated otter gives birth 60 – 62 days later to between one and five young. At four weeks the eyes open, and at six weeks they begin to learn to swim. After five months, the young are weaned and at one year, they will often disperse to find home ranges of their own. The longest recorded life span in captivity is around 20 years and five months.

Smooth-coated otters are unusually social and family groups including the breeding pair and up to four young from previous seasons might nest and hunt together in a territory of 7 – 12 km². This territory is marked by a strong musky odour that is spread on vegetation from anal scent glands in both males and females. Whilst the male is larger, it is the female who holds dominance in the group.

This active carnivore will hunt in groups both at night and during the day for fish, insects, earthworms, crustaceans, frogs, water rats, and birds; however, it is predominantly a fish eater. When swimming slowly, all four paws are used to ‘doggy paddle’ through the water, but to swim fast, the shorter front paws are tucked in, and the webbed hind feet and tail are used for propulsion. The ears and nostrils can be closed underwater. Fishermen in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan often train these cooperative hunters to drive fish into their nets.

Using visual and auditory communication, smooth-coated otters will also cooperate to lookout for predators such as crocodiles, medium-sized cat species, and large birds of prey.

The smooth-coated otter is found in southern and Southeast Asia, India, and China, as well as a small population in Iraq.

Preferred habitats vary with region, but smooth-coated otters can inhabit large lowland rivers and lakes, peat swamp forests, mangrove forests by coasts and estuaries, or the rice fields of Southeast Asia. These otters seek habitat with rocky areas for dens and resting, as well as bank side vegetation to provide some cover whilst foraging. In areas with monsoons, the seasonally flooded swamps are made use of in order to follow fish populations. The smooth-coated otter will travel long distances over land to find suitable habitat.

The smooth-coated otter is classified as Vulnerable (VU A2acd) on the IUCN Red List 2004 and is listed on Appendix II of CITES. It is also listed as Endangered on Schedule II Part II of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972, and is protected by the Protection of Wildlife, Wild Plants and Conservation of Natural Areas Act 15(A).

Despite its diverse habitat preferences, one of the major threats to the survival of this species is the loss of suitable habitat. Construction of large-scale hydroelectric projects, as well as land clearance for settlement and agriculture have been major influences on this otter’s decline, as has habitat degradation as a result of water pollution from pesticides and fertilisers. Poaching is known to occur primarily in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Whilst the smooth-coated otter occurs in many national parks, particularly in Indonesia where there is no other form of protection, enforcement of the security these areas should offer is usually poor. Several surveying projects have been put into practice to establish the range and ecology of this species.