IUCN Otter Specialist Group . . . leading global otter conservation Last Update: Wednesday February 8, 2012
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Questions and Answers: In-Depth Responses

We live on the Vaalriver in the Northern Cape (SA). At early hours of the morning the clawless otters looks like adults and young, will gather on the grass near river. It looks as if they go in trance like state while lifting their tails and squirting, steam in a bow. Afterwards they will role in the excretion. Please could you explain the behavior.  

Nanette, Northern Cape, South Africa, 8 February 2012

Response from Lesley Wright

This is called group sprainting (sprainting is the "otter" word for defaecation).  All otter species except sea otters use their faeces and urine to mark their territory, and probably to convey information to other otters.

Social species, such as clawless otters, also use it to bond the group by smell. 

Clawless otters live in stable families of a life-bonded pair, their current litter of cubs and sometimes cubs from previous litters that stay with their parents for a few years before leaving to start their own families.  Each family has a large territory with several dens ("holts") spread throughout it.  Throughout the territory, they will have customary latrines where they deposit faeces and urine to mark their ownership.  Several families may "time share" some areas - they will very seldom actually meet, but when a family move in, they will "overwrite" the previous tenants' latrines with their own.

In the behaviour you describe, one of the parents will arrive at the latrine and urinate and defaecate (you describe the typical urination behaviour by otters, and it is usually followed by paddling the hind feet in a characteristic way).  Sometimes the male will begin, sometimes the female.  Each family member will then carefully add their contribution to the "spraint heap".  The trance-like expression is typical.  Afterwards, the whole family will mix the spraint and anoint themselves to share the family smell by rolling as you describe.

This is really typical behaviour seen in clawless otters, the closely related Asian Small-Clawed otters, and the other highly social species, the South American Giant Otter, whose latrines can apparently be smelt several miles away!  The less social species would not do the rolling on the spraint heap because they are not building a family bond.

It is such a hallmark of otter behaviour that if you are ever amongst a group of otter scientists or conservationists, you have but to mention "the sprainty dance" and we all start to stamp our feet and wiggle like an otter ....

Lesley Wright

Response provided 8 February 2012