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How Do Otters Communicate?

Otters may be considered one of the cutest animals due to their playful nature and adorable look. However, the ways otters communicate are complex and not limited to simple vocalizations.

Otters communicate with chirping, squealing, snorting, blowing, whistling, and screaming noises.  Otters make noise when stressed, threatened, agitated, or playing. Otters also communicate with smell and body language.

There is a more detailed description of North American River Otter vocalizations below.

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What Sounds Do Otters Make?

Otters can and do use vocalizations to communicate; this is more common in family groups and in groups of males (which can reach above 10 animals).

There are a few different kinds of vocalizations that North American River Otters can make. There was a study that detailed the kinds of vocalizations of two otter pairs in captivity.

The study found that the most common call type was a ‘chirp,’ described as “short high pitch” calls and are agitation calls, most often used when the otter is stationary or investigating.

Check out this video to hear different otter sounds.

Another noise mentioned in the study is ‘chatterchirps,’ which are a series of chirps in quick succession. These vocalizations are linked to high agitation states and often during physical altercations.

Otters also have a squeak type vocalization, which was depicted to be a “shrieking whine,” lasting on average roughly 2 seconds and comprised of both whines and chirps.

This squeaking noise was only used to respond to human presence and occurred during agonistic behaviors such as displacement. This suggests that the squeak type vocalization may help otters avoid physical altercations with other otters and other species.

Blowing type noises were recorded in the study, produced by an exhalation of air, and in the study by Walkley were found to be during non-agonistic behaviors. This is opposed by many other studies which suggest that the blow or snort type call was used as a warning or agonistic communication.

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Whistling is a common sound made in otter pups and has only been recorded in otter pups or very rarely young otters. It sounds much like a chirp but decreases harmonically. Pups usually use this call while exploring natal dens or trying to locate their mother.

Interestingly, whine, chirp, and chatterchirps are the main vocalizations of otters and are present in pups from birth. Pups vocalizations are undeveloped versions of adult vocals, which have individual variations; Almonte suggests that this is because vocalizations are individually modified as pups enter adulthood. This means that otters have unique voices like humans do!

Otters grunt, sounding much like a human clearing their throat; the call is low pitched and usually used when an otter is mildly agitated or aroused.

Otters make noises that indicate they are stressed and/or threatened; Almonte recorded three noises, which were commonly made by an adult blind female.

These noises were hisses, which sound like a snake’s hiss, a vocalization described as a swish that sounds like water swirling in a container (likened to a hiss), and creaking like a wooden door opening. All three of these noises were used when the blind female otter would retreat to a corner, indicating that she felt threatened.

A scream type noise had been noted in females, which bears some similarity to a whine, but the call becomes increasingly louder as it goes on. This call had been produced by two pregnant females who were housed separately and were demonstrated by the otters when males were present about a month before giving birth. This call was also successful in keeping male otters away from the den and preventing them from entering.

Although these two studies give an insight into the various sounds otters, make and why they were small studies, and there is a long way to go before we can truly understand the way otters communicate.

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Do Otters use Body Language to Communicate?

Although otters mainly communicate through olfaction, as they are solitary animals, there is some evidence to suggest that otters also use body language to communicate.

Otters show affection to their offspring through playing, touching, and their body posture. It is thought that a pup can know if their mother is ‘happy’ with them or trying to discipline them by the way they stand.

It has also been seen at latrine sites that male otters do something coined a ‘poop dance,’ where a male raises their tail at a very high angle and then stomps its feet. It has been noticed that when one otter utilizes this behavior, it triggers other otters to do so.

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Do Otters Communicate Through Smell?

Otters do not ‘talk’ in the way that humans do. Instead, much of their communication is through spraints, areas that otters leave small pieces of waste behind.

This kind of communication is called olfaction; thus, it is hard for us to understand how otters truly communicate. We can, however, look at spraint sites and analyze their use.

As usually solitary creatures, Otters mainly communicate through ‘spraints,’ which are small waste pieces.

It is hard to understand what information otters get from spraints. However, they are useful for research, as they can indicate the size of otter populations, among other things.

Many otters use spraint areas, and although it is strange for a human to think of communicating in the bathroom, spraints and their locations can give us a lot of information about how otters socialize.

All otters use spraint sites; North American otter spraints are usually small grey or black; tarry contains fish bones and is not always solid. The spraints are often made of food waste; however, otters have anal glands that secrete the ‘otter-like’ smell.

Each otter has its own unique spraint scent, almost like a fingerprint.

North American river otters tend to have spraint sites at vantage points, such as under bridges, on prominent rocks at the seashore, and near trees.

The otters’ spraint sites along the Alaskan coast are large, with very prominent “heaps of scats” over huge areas, near holts (otter dens), and freshwater pools. These are other favored spraint sites of river otters.

The spraint sites along the Alaskan coast are so large and frequently used that the otters’ excess nitrogen has affected the vegetation at these sites.

Spraints are used for various reasons, one of the most obvious and important being marking their territories. Otters are carnivores, and as such, territory maintenance is essential.

By marking their territories, otters know how to avoid each other as they are usually solitary animals. Although, when females have pups, there are usually one or two other otters (usually past offspring) that help.

Males have been known to live in clans, and the most common spot where they gather is spraint sites, which suggests that spraints are highly important in the communication of otters.

Spraints have been used by researchers to monitor otter populations as well as establish what the otter’s habitat preferences are. Although we cannot understand the meaning of otter spraints, we can derive a lot of information from them to further research.

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References and Sources

Researchgate North_American_River_Otters_Vocal_Repertoires_

Otter communication theses

National Wildlife Foundation

University of Southern Mississippi

National Geographic