Monday, 15 February 2016

The Seri Tanjung Pinang Otter superfamily

What Otters?
There is a lot of misinformation about the otters seen around the coast of the island of Penang. They have been variously described as Sea Otters, Beavers and Sea Lions….both by the press and local passersby who fortunately don’t pretend to be David Attenborough. There are only 13 species of Otters in the world and only three of these are found in South East Asia…namely; Hairy-nosed Otters (I have seen them in Taman Negara), Small-clawed Otters (seen as high as Fraser’s Hill) and the species we have on our shores…the Smooth-coated Otters. Sea Otters are those cute Otters seen around Monterey Bay in the USA and they don’t extend to these parts. The only advantage them being Beavers would be they might gnaw down a few palm oil trees.

The local Smooth-coated Otter species should not be identified on the appearance of the pups because they are two-toned and look similar to adult Small-clawed otters with the white chin. There is however a large difference in size between the two species.

The otters shown below are Smooth-coated Otters. The markings on the lower lip are signatures for individuals

What Locations?
My wife and I have lived in Seri Tanjung Pinang for nearly 5 years. I have seen and photographed Smooth-coated Otters on Penang mainland but the group I am writing about here is a local group that I have observed and photographed on many walks along the promenade of my estate. They have been variously filmed teasing paddling dogs on nearby beaches and feeding along the shoreline. They possibly don’t crave human proximity but have made use of structures created by man. The section of the Straits of Malacca that separates mainland Penang from the island of Penang has many moods and the sunrises peeking over the hills behind Butterworth are often the target on early morning photographers. The sky above has many colours too with huge storm clouds and lightening dancing within clouds. The Seri Tanjung Pinang promenade, despite some local miscreants using it as a motorcycle track is a great asset for house owners on the estate to walk in the early morning to enjoy some nature or to observe the  Straits Quay fireworks that are are also the best locally to herald the new calendar year.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater

White-throated Kingfisher

Whimbrel (an immigrant)

Water Monitor

Black-naped Oriole

The Otter family
I am a scientist and a nature photographer but this story has no scientific rigor in that to verify statements I would have to dart individual animals and do DNA analysis on them. Currently I would rather shoot them with my camera. I have pieced together various observations in the last 6 months that make some sense of many observations I have made and had reported to me in the past 4 years.

Smooth-coated Otters
Smooth-coated Otters are distributed throughout south Asia. Its distribution is continuous from Indonesia, through Southeast Asia and westward from Southern China to India and Pakistan with an isolated population in Iraq. They are often found in large groups where the basic family group consists of an adult female and her offspring and the father of the offspring. The older siblings may also join the group. The Smooth-coated otters attain sexual maturity at 22 months and females deliver first litters at 4 years of age. They mate during August to October. Mating occurs in the water and occurs several times daily. Littering takes place in November-December with the average litter size being 3. Cubs are seen out of the den in February. Males may mate with as many as 4 different females.
The above data was recorded from captive breeding, which correlates well with observations in the wild in India.

My observations.
I have seen pairs of otters in the offshore waters in August and have observed them copulate… is over in 15 seconds!!!! 

We have observed otters regularly around the Straits Quay area mainly around Christmas. In the 2015-2016 period I walked the promenade around 6.30-7.30am on most mornings. In late December I could hear the high-pitched squeaking of otters at the Straits Quay Marina.
The video shown is taken from a drone over the Straits Quay marina; On several mornings the adults were very excited, or distressed, and swam in circles under the ‘Lighthouse’ and were seen leaping from the water. I later learned from the personnel from the vintage sailing ship ‘Vega’ that they had identified several very young pups in two dens; one under the ‘Lighthouse’ and another on the north-eastern corner of the marina. The latter den had access from the Marina and the open sea. The ‘Vega’ crew has rescued a young, ‘near-death’ pup and fed him back to health. The crew told me that the excited behaviour occurred at low-tides when the adults could not access the den under the lighthouse. Otters clearly had a need for tidal charts. The pups exacerbate the frenzy by being very vocal when hungry.

The 'Vega'.

Ariel view of Straits Quay marine showing the location of the two littering dens
Around the middle of January I did not hear the otters in the Marina any more although we had several sightings along the shoreline.

In the first and second weeks of February 2016 there were reports of around 6 otters denning in the barrier rocks along the promenade.  On the 12 and 13th of February I observed the denning in the afternoon from 3pm to 4pm. I was surprised to see 9-10 individual otters that caught fish with great ease and took them into the den. The majority of this group appears to be about the same size…….youngsters. Since the average litter size was three (also verified by the ‘Vega’ crew) the group had to consist of a crèche or an amalgamation of litters. I assumed that the two littering dens within the Straits Quay Marina was two different females and possibly the same male.

Denning Otters leave a localised odour and during this time I could identify several other odour hotspots along the rocks outside the marina. Otters were observed sprainting the rocks around their dens. The others in the group identify with this marking and sometime roll in the effluent as a bonding ritual. I have pointed out the odour to several friends and they had noticed it but blamed the nearby building site!

While making the observations of the Seri Tanjung Pinang otters there appeared to be a parallel story in Singapore with the Bishan Otters that had been in residence at a waterway in a park for several seasons. Similar to the Seri Tanjung Pinang group of 9 to 10 individuals there were 10 in the Bishan group. A nice video of the young pups swimming was shown posted recently In the Bishan group the 5 new pups could have come from one litter or from perhaps two females. The timing of the birth of the litter(s) and the appearance of the pups is very similar the the STP group.

The STP group will later disperse as the pups gain maturity. During the rest of the year sightings will be less frequent and commonly only single otters or pairs will be sighted. At any time it is difficult to predict where the group will be....they clearly have multiple dens and from my experience will use a specific den for only two or three days before moving on.

Smooth-coated Otter numbers are diminishing and are listed as a threatened species. Their habitat is being destroyed and they face increasing competition for food supplies. Locally they compete with local fishermen and face danger when raiding the increasing numbers of fish farms. Sightings of these 'sea dogs' and their protection should be a privilege and a priority. Most residents are blase about the otters presence but there is a hard core of folk hoping to protect the group. We should all feel honoured that they choose to live amongst us.