At the Zoo: Right on the nose

The Jerusalem Zoo's Asian otters have a unique system for family bonding time.

Otters at Zoo 521 (photo credit: Ruthie Schuler)
Otters at Zoo 521
(photo credit: Ruthie Schuler)
When a number of animals live together in a social group, they often develop group activities. Bats sleep en masse, chimps like to play, wolves hunt as a pack, and humans watch TV. But for the Asian small-clawed otter, the toilet is the place to be when the family wants to get together.
Asian small-clawed otters are the smallest otters in the world, usually only weighing between 2.7 and 5 kilograms. They get their name from their very short claws that, unlike those of all other otters, are not long enough to stick out over the end of their paws. This means the otters are quite skillful at using their paws to hold things, catch prey or groom their fur.
Like most otters, they live in family groups with only the alpha parents giving birth and the offspring remaining at home to help care for their younger siblings. The Jerusalem Zoo currently has seven otters: two parents named Lars and Burta, four young otters and one newborn cub. Lars arrived from a zoo in Copenhagen, where he was given his Nordic name. Burta was named after the wife of Genghis Khan on account of her assertive behavior that sometimes involves chasing all of the other otters out of their den.
In the wild, these mammals live in tunnels that they dig along near riverbanks, swamps, bogs and wetlands across central and southeast Asia. They eat just about anything they can get their paws on including insects, fish and especially river crabs. In fact, it is their diet that has led to them becoming a vulnerable species, because they tend to eat the same kind of food as any human communities in the same area. This puts them in direct competition and often it is the otters that come up empty-pawed and in second place.
Otters mark their territory using scent, and what better way to give off a scent more than a communal toilet? All members of an Asian otter family make a habit of using the same family toilet and will even visit the area in their bog as a group, with several otters forming up in a cozy ring around the chosen spot so that they can all make a unified contribution. The result is the unique pong that visitors will notice hanging in the air of their exhibit. However, those who are prepared to brave the whiff may be rewarded with the sight of frolicking otters, as Asian otters are most active during the day – searching for food, swimming in the water and grooming their fur.