10 Facts About the Asian Small-Clawed Otter, and What You Can Do to Help This Vulnerable Species

10 Facts About the Asian Small-Clawed Otter, and What You Can Do to Help This Vulnerable Species

They’re the smallest otter in the world, but they face some big threats. The Asian small-clawed otter - weighing in at no more than a dozen pounds and measuring about two feet long – is found throughout Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China. Despite being able to live in a variety of habitats, from freshwater rivers to coastal areas and mangroves to rice paddies, an increasing loss of habitat has put the species at risk. They’re currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Learn more about this species – named for their short claws that don’t extend past their finger pads – and what you can do to help them.

They Juggle When They’re Ready to Eat

Who can’t help but get excited for mealtime? Asian small-clawed otters sure can’t, and one way they show their anxiousness for meals may be juggling. A study published in Royal Society Open Science investigated the phenomenon of juggling captive small-clawed otters. This behavior has been observed in zoo populations of the animal, as well as the smooth-coated otter, and researchers wanted to understand why they seemed to do it. At first, they thought it may have something to do with extractive food foraging behavior, and that otters who were apt to do this would be the ones more adept at solving food puzzles, but it turns out, otters mostly just seemed to do so when they were hungry.

Mari-Lisa Allison, the study’s lead author and animal behaviorist, said, "So what they do is they lie on their backs [and] throw the pebble kind of across the chest between their paws and up to their mouth. And they can also do this standing. I've seen one where they're up against the fence, kind of passing it through the mesh and dropping it, catching the bottom and bringing it back through…

"They love their food... They get really loud. So we thought that they did this behavior a lot more when they were hungry because they were anticipating getting the food. They were getting really excited. I guess it's almost like getting fidgety."


Since it was most commonly seen in juvenile and elderly otters, she says it may help with development in youth and then staving off cognitive decline in older years.

It’s unclear if they do it in the wild, though.

They Watch Others to Overcome Challenges

Otters are already known to be fairly smart animals, with evidence showing they may have been using tools for thousands of years, but they may also add onto their smarts by gleaning information from their friends. A 2022 study published in Royal Society Open Science found that captive Asian small-clawed otters watched their fellow otters when presented with unfamiliar prey. This was in an effort to figure out how to extract meat. Once they started investigating the prey themselves, though, they managed to do it by themselves for the most part. Studies like this help understand how otters solve foraging challenges, which could be important information ahead of any reintroduction efforts.

They Often Mate for Life

When it comes to animals that mate for life, the majority are birds. Only around 5% of such species are mammals, but the Asian small-clawed otter is one of them. Each breeding season, these monogamous animals will stick with one partner, who will often remain their partner for life. It’s all hands on deck when the young are born, as well, with mom, dad, and other members of their family group pitching in. Female small-clawed otters can have up to two litters a year, with one to six pups each time.

They’re Quite Social and Chatty

Once pups age, they’ll often stay with their parents in family groups of around a dozen individuals, until it’s their time to breed. With this social set up, it’s not surprising that they have a lot of ways to chat with each other, too. The species is known to produce at least 12 different vocalizations, which can include greetings and alarm calls.

Their Whiskers Have Detection Powers

When Asian small-clawed otters are on the hunt for food, they have a secret weapon: sensitive whiskers. Their whiskers can detect water movements, alerting them to prey opportunities nearby, even if the water is too murky to easily spot prey with their eyes. This allows them to chow down on fish, amphibians, reptiles, and crustaceans.

They May Have Spatial Memory, When it Comes to Food

Asian small-clawed otters exhibit social behaviors that are reflective of high intelligence, so another study tried to see how advanced their cognitive abilities are. To do so, researchers recorded the animal’s ability to solve a modified radial arm maze, which measures spatial learning and memory. In each subsequent session, the otters performed better, which the researchers say provides evidence that they have spatial memory for food locations. This also means they may be a candidate for further tests on their cognitive abilities.

They’re Landlubbers

Though all otters spend a large chunk of their lives in the water, Asian small-clawed otters are the least apt to do so. These landlubbers are the most terrestrial of all otter species, spending more time on land than the rest. They’re also most active during the day, so they can make good use of sunny grassy areas to soak in some rays.

Their Bodies are Buoyant and Waterproof

Though they spend a lot of time on land, their bodies are well-suited for the water. Asian small-clawed otters have two-layered fur, consisting of a soft insulating layer on the inside and long guard hairs on the outside, which leaves the animals water-resistant. Air pockets within their coat also help them remain buoyant. Another trick that makes them perfect for the water? They can close their ears and nostrils while diving under the surface.

They’re Important to Their Ecosystems

Asian small-clawed otters are what is known as an indicator species because their presence indicates the health of the areas they inhabit. In spots where they’re abundant, it’s a sign the ecosystem is healthy. When their numbers go down, on the other hand, it can be a sign of ecological issues.

They Face Threats

Like so many species throughout the world, Asian small-clawed otters are threatened by habitat loss, with their range decreasing substantially in the last several decades. This is due primarily to development and changing land uses. Pollution and overfishing are also lowering prey species' populations. The small-clawed otter is another victim of the pet trade, as well.

The species is currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. We’re teaming up with partners to help the species, including with surveys of their habitat. If you’d like to help, click below!

Michelle Milliken

Michelle has a journalism degree and has spent more than seven years working in broadcast news. She's also been known to write some silly stuff for humor websites. When she's not writing, she's probably getting lost in nature, with a fully-stocked backpack, of course.

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