By Fran Southgate
Living Landscapes Advisor
A little over a year ago we could confirm that after an absence of over four decades, otters are living in Sussex once more. Having waited for their return for so long, it’s been almost as much of a journey for us discovering where and how our otters are choosing to recolonise, as it has for the otters themselves. Sussex is a blank canvas for otters at the moment. With no other otters to compete with, the recolonising otter(s) effectively have the pick of the best bits of Sussex, and it’s fascinating to watch where they are choosing to live.
Although camera traps can record nocturnal footage of these intelligent creatures, we are still fundamentally reliant on scrambling round river banks looking for otter field signs to help us work out where they are. There are three main field signs that we can look for – footprints, otter spraint (droppings) and anal jelly! What’s anal jelly I hear you cry? …. Well, I’ll get to that in a minute!
European otters are mainly solitary animals, who appear to use scent as one of the main means of communication. As with many territorial mammals, scent communication tends to be by means of deposits of droppings, urine, or in this case also anal jelly, left in strategic places around their territories. It’s effectively a bit of an ‘Oi Gerrof my land’ message left in the best bits of their territory telling others to keep out.
We still don’t know that much about how, or more to the point what, otters communicate through anal jelly and spraint; nor do we know much about the social function that this performs. Studies of captive otters show that it is potentially quite a sophisticated system of communication, which is tailored to each individual otter. There are also clear differences between juvenile and adult scent messages – with adults developing much more ‘aromatic complexity’ in the layers of scent they put down!
It’s fairly certain that otters use scent to attract a mate – a kind of mustelid perfume or aftershave used to lure in a mate without the otter even needing to be there. On the flip side, the scent of pregnant and lactating females is very different to that of male and juvenile scent, but females appear to avoid too much scent communication when they are caring for young, perhaps preferring to use it as more of an ‘oi gerrof’ message again
One of the most noticeable things about otter spraint is that it retains its smell for a long time. I have a 20 year old otter poo that still has a fairly potent ‘eau de otter’. So what does it smell like to the human nose? Both spraint and anal jelly are surprisingly not unpleasant! There is a sweetish jasmine tea type smell, blended with a hint of fish which tends to linger in your nostrils for a while after you’ve smelt it!! And as for the anal jelly, it appears to be linked with potential for breeding, but no one really knows.
Yesterday I managed to find more otter signs in Sussex in 2 hours, than I had in 16 years – the full gamut. You can see pictures of the three main ones – otter spraint, an otter footprint and… anal jelly. We await with baited breath (and that’s not just because I’m holding my nose!) to see if the anal jelly means anything more than just ‘hello I’m here’.
otter anal jelly