Friday, January 11, 2013

River otters in the Finger Lakes

This is a long one, so get comfortable!

January 11, 2013
Today I had the pleasure of accompanying a past professor of mine from Finger Lakes Community College (John), and a current Biotechnology student (Will) on a tramp through the woods. We were at the Hi Tor Wildlife Management Area in Italy Valley, NY. The goal: to find a river otter (Lontra canadensis) latrine site.

Some brief natural history about the river otter: they are in the weasel family (Mustelidae) along with wolverines and badgers (which do not live in NY), fishers, martens, mink, short/long-tailed weasels, and least weasels. They’re all very long-bodied, veracious hunters and fighters, and they all contain a scent gland that leaves behind a very musky scent. Weasels are smelly, but I love them! Around 12ish years ago, river otters were locally extirpated in the Finger Lake region. They could still be found in pockets in the Adirondacks and perhaps the Catskills. The DEC, along with private monies, collected and live-trapped otters from these regions. They were then rehabilitated, vaccinated, fattened up, and then released at various areas all over the Finger Lakes. It’s ONE example of an animal trapped and releases in another area that was a success story. Over the past decade +, the river otters have been coming back in force. There is not a season for trapping allowed, because it has not been determined that they are THAT stable, but they’re back. There have been live and sign sightings, incidental trappings, and roadkills found all over the region. Oh, and what’s a latrine? It’s also referred to as a “toilet” site. The otters (and some other critters) will defecate and urinate in the same spot over and over. This is a territorial marking behavior.

There is a study going on currently out of the Environmental School of Forestry (SUNY ESF) in Syracuse that hopes to document where the otter are, a potential abundance of them, and then “who” is around. Camera traps are being used, as well as scat samples are being taken so that DNA work can be done to determine the “who” or genetic variation. Much of the camera-trapping has begun over the summer of 2012, and not much work (to my knowledge) has been done in the lab working on scat samples.

Will, the biotech student from FLCC, is assisting in the scat collection. Since these easily-accessible latrines were found, and he lives nearby, he and others will be monitoring the area for fresh scats. John knew the location, and so off we went.

Our destination location: River Otter Pond
 As we approached the pond, we made sure to keep quiet. The last time John had visited the pond, he observed an otter on the shore. We hoped that this would be the case again today. Well, we were NOT disappointed! After a short 2-3 minutes of standing still and scanning the ice, I spotted a little head pop out of an ice hole that the otters were breathing at. I unfortunately don’t have any pictures to share of that sighting, but we counted 3! Below is a picture of the ice hole, with tracks leading to/from it.

In the top picture, I'm standing on the side of the pond we first approached, and that is the view 
I watched the otters at. The arrow is the ice hole. The bottom picture is across the other side of the 
pond, looking back in the direction I originally was. The ice hole is much easier to see from here.

The sighting was VERY cool for me. Weasels in general are very intelligent and wary critters. They are curious, but quick. We were able to sneak up undetected and catch a glimpse of them acting naturally and doing “otter stuff”. It was amazing, and yet ANOTHER confirmation that I’m in the right field of study and work! After watching the otters until they went back under the ice, we set to work looking for the 2 otter latrine sites that were known to be at the pond’s edge.

The first location was easily spotted. There was otter scat in abundance.

Otter latrine site #1. Notice the entrance/exit hole at left.

Otter scat is easy to identify, in my opinion. Because their primary diet consists of fish, and invertebrates like crayfish, the scales and exoskeletons are found in the scat, because it’s too tough to digest. See below.

Note the scales and delicate fish bones in the scat.
Will collecting scat samples.
Will is looking to determine which method of preservation will best keep the integrity of the scat. Once it is expelled from the body, the scat is decomposing, thus the DNA is breaking up. Since the work to determine the genetics of the scat can't be done in the field, it must be preserved until lab time. Will is trying no preservative (L), a chemical I don't remember (M), and ethanol (R). Then all samples will be frozen until he's ready to work in the lab.

Once Will took what he needed from this location, we hiked over to the other side of the pond. Still no sign of the otters.

On this side of the pond, John knew for sure there was a latrine site. He actually visited this exact spot the last time he was here, and he deployed a Cuddeback Attack IR camera at the site. Bound to get otters, right?

The Cuddeback Attack's view of the latrine site.
Success! Two river otters in a 'slide'. This is a behavior otters often do, to get from point A to point B. 
Photo credit: John Van Niel
AND TRIPLE SUCCESS! 3 otters this time! Is this the 3 otters that we saw earlier? Regardless, what an awesome capture. Photo credit: John Van Niel

Total success! The grad student in charge of the overall project is going to be so excited when she sees the site and the pictures.

Lastly, after Will took his samples he did one last thing. The grad student I just mentioned, Elaina, will be visiting this spot in the future to check it out, and to collect samples. Another thing you can do to make sure that you have a good scat sample, is to get the freshest possible. Well, how do you know if the poop is fresh? Sight? Smell? Texture? Gross.

Well, you can glitterize it!

Sprinkling glitter on the scat will tell Elaina which is freshest. Tomorrow, when she visits,
she'll know that any 'unglittered' scat is less than 24 hours old.

This latrine site was huge. Probably 8 feet wide and absolutely covered...with poop.

What a wonderful day. I know to many, this seems like a bizarre thing to be interested in and to get excited about. But seeing the otters was a total chance, yet sign left behind is much easier and common to observe, and can tell us so much about the lives of these amazing animals.

I will soon have a blog entry or 2 about Otter’s cousin, Fisher. Another fascinating wild animal!

PS- for John's take of the day, check out his blog Backyard Beasts: All that glitters is not gold, sometimes it's otter poop.


  1. Well, that explains the disappearance of the Brook Trout down stream... Are these otters being introduced for fur trapping opportunities, or just for looking at?

    1. First, I need to clarify: the river otter was REintroduced to Western NY. They were once natives of the area, running rampant. But, habitat destruction, over harvest, etc etc wiped them out.

      As of now, there is not a trapping season in the Finger Lakes/Western NY region for river otter. But there are other similar examples that have led/are leading to hunting/trapping seasons. Black bears are bouncing back like there's no tomorrow, and I'm sure you're aware of that if you live in the FLs. Bobcat- there is now an experimental season open to get an idea of how the population is doing (sampling the population). And lastly- fishers (the cousin to the otter) is currently being assessed across the state via cameras and hair snares to see if a season could be opened up on them.

      Hunting and trapping are sources of revenue for the state, and if you live in NY you know the state our economy is in. Some research needs to be done, but I would not be surprised if the study I mentioned above led to a trapping season in the future.

      For more information about river otters in NY:

  2. Fantastic! I've never heard of glittering scat before but should come into much use for me. I've been doing camera trapping in northern Virginia and recently found (hopefully) otter scat piles above a den. Thanks for the glitter tip!

    1. Brian, thanks for stopping by. The concept of glittering scat was brought to me by John, as mentioned above. Check out his blog, Backyard Beasts, for his take on the day. It seems bizarre, but is totally practical!

  3. Yeah I've been stopping by frequently in the past few weeks and have even been inspired to start my own camera trapping blog over at

    Any advice on how to find an otter den with no snow on the ground? I've been doing a crazy amount of river and creek bank walks with minimal luck.

    1. Otter scat is highly visible, even without snow. It looks like oatmeal...just don't taste it. Won't make THAT mistake 3 times! :) Look along a pond edge, or slow moving water edge. They often take over beaver lodges and bank dens of other animals. I believe they are more inclined to use a preexisting shelter, than fashion their own. Although, there's probably the outlier otter that's industrious. But generally speaking, just look for high traffic areas, where crossing water or getting in/out looks like it might be easy to use. If you've found an otter latrine site- and it will be multiple piles like in the pics above- the den needs to be nearby. I wouldn't waste time or camera hours on what you THINK is a den. I'd place it by the latrine. Unless you KNOW it to be a latrine. Or you have multiple cameras :) I'll check out your blog. Welcome to the community, check out who I follow...there's a lot of good 'trappers out there. I love seeing what everyone's getting!

  4. Sighted 5/4/13 about 6:30 am along Seneca lake shore in Willard, NY. Black, sleek and slim, looked like a ferret. Is this possibly a river otter?

    1. David- what you're describing could fit these critters (all in the Weasel family): River otter, fisher, or mink. All 3 are long, slim, dark in color. Depends on size now, to get a better ID. Fisher and Otter are about the same size, ROUGHLY house cat sized. Mink are smaller, but still bigger than say a pet ferret. Also, habitat is something to take into consideration- fishers, despite their name, do not spend much time around water, like it's cousins Otter and Mink. Those two almost depend exclusively on water. My best guess, is that you saw a mink!

  5. We saw 4 otters this a.m. from our dock on the northwestern shore of Seneca Lake.


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