|January 11, 2013|
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|
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 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.
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?
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!
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.