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Otter Current Science

Otter Current Science

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CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 91, NO. 5, 10 SEPTEMBER 2006637*For correspondence. (e-mail: k19@uky.edu)
Factors determining habitat choice of thesmooth-coated otter,
 Lutra perspicillata
in aSouth Indian river system
Kausalya Shenoy
*, Surendra Varma
and K. V. Devi Prasad
Salim Ali School of Ecology, Pondicherry University, Kalapet, Pondicherry 605 014, India
Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre, c/o Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore 560 012, India
Nityata Foundation, 203 Reach for the Sky, 184, 9th Cross, Indiranagar 1 Stage, Bangalore 560 038, India
School of Biological Sciences, 101 Morgan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506, USA
This study has characterized spraint sites of the smooth-coated otter
in the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. Ottersuse specific sites on land (‘otter sites’/‘spraint sites’)for feeding and social activities; ‘non-otter sites’ arethose not used by the otters. Various habitat parame-ters were identified and assessed. Otter sites varied sig-nificantly from non-otter sites, and comprised of loosely packed sand and rock, and lacked hard-packedsand, stone, gravel, vegetation and canopy cover. Webelieve these site features are important in facilitatinggrooming, and are prominent territorial markers. Ottersavoided areas with high levels of anthropogenic distur-bance, though avoidance was temporal rather thanspatial. This study has categorized the preferred habi-tat of otters, which is of importance to conservation.Keywords:
Anthropogenic disturbance, Cauvery WildlifeSanctuary, spraint sites, social interactions, wetland con-servation.O
form a distinct sub-family Lutrinae within thefamily Mustelidae
. Three species of otters are found inIndia –
 Lutra perspicillata
(smooth-coated otter),
(Eurasian otter) and
 Amblonyx cinereus
(small-clawed otter)
 IUCN Red List 2004
 L. perspicillata
as‘vulnerable’, and the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India,1972 prohibits hunting, trapping and killing of the species,indicating its vulnerable status. Major threats to Indianotter populations include habitat destruction due to develop-mental projects, reclamation of wetlands for settlementand agriculture, reduction in prey biomass, poaching andcontamination of waterways
. To date, no research per-taining to otters has been undertaken in the Cauvery riversystem. Some pockets along this river harbour sizeablepopulations of otters (K. Shenoy, pers. obs.) and mayprove to be critical areas for otter conservation. This studyis instrumental in contributing to the knowledge on thehabitat preferences of the smooth-coated otter in India,which can in turn aid in preventing the loss of prime otterhabitats to development and agricultural activities. If otterpopulations are to be conserved, it is essential that itsecology, behaviour and habitat preference be studiedthoroughly.Deposition of spraints (otter droppings) has been asso-ciated with territory-marking and communication of will-ingness to mate between sexes
. Otters are known to chooseconspicuous places for spraint deposition
, and fidelityto such sites has been observed by several researchers
 (Claus Reuther, pers. commun.). Sprainting usually occursbefore, during and after hunting bouts
, and duringgrooming and other social interactions
. Spraints are oftendeposited at grooming sites, along regular travel routes,around entrances to holts (dens) or near foraging sites
;often most of these activities will occur at a spraint site(K. Shenoy, pers. obs.). The importance of spraint sites tosocial interactions in otter communities suggests thatcharacterizing these and other habitat aspects should bethe focus of conservation studies, particularly where habitatmodification and disturbance play a significant role.The objective of this study was to characterize thehabitat of 
 L. perspicillata
along river banks and islands of a typical river system inhabited by this species. The firsthypothesis we tested was that otter sites differ from non-ottersites in habitat features related to primary otter activities.Specifically, we predicted that otters would prefer siteswith loose sand and little tree canopy to facilitate groomingand basking
. Stony and gravely substrates with densevegetation and leaf litter would hinder grooming, whichoften entails rolling in the sand to dry fur (K. Shenoy,pers. obs.). Every visit to a site is marked by depositionof spraints on a conspicuous object, such as a rock or log
.We therefore predicted that some rock should be avail-able in an otter site (logs were not present along the riverbanks and islands).Secondly, we hypothesized that the anthropogenic activitywould reduce the use of an area by otters. Some researchershave observed that the smooth-coated otter is less sensitiveto human presence than other otter species
. However,Foster-Turley
noted that otters tend to be more nocturnal
in areas of high anthropogenic disturbance. We predictedthat frequency of otter visits and number of spraint siteswould be negatively correlated to anthropogenic activityalong stretches of river bank or islands.
Study area
The study site, Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS), was cho-sen after reconnaissance surveys and interviews with natural-ists and local residents revealed that a sizeable populationof otters inhabited the sanctuary. CWS is about 100 kmsouth of Bangalore, South India, and covers an area of 527 km
. River Cauvery within this sanctuary, extendsabout 35 km from Bhimeshvari (12
N, 77
E) toHogenekal (12
N, 77
E). Boulders and sand banksare common along its course. The sanctuary is mainly amix of degraded dry deciduous forest and scrub jungle.Dominant floral species along the river banks are
Termi-nalia arjuna
 Diospyros montana
Tamarindus indicus
 (K. Shenoy, pers. obs.). The climate is semi-arid with av-erage temperatures above 25
C and average annual rain-fall
of 60–100 cm. The Sholiga tribal village of Muttati lieswithin this sanctuary. The village temple receives week-end visitors from surrounding towns and villages, and theriver is a major recreational attraction. Visitors oftencamp along the river banks, thereby adding to litter, noiseand disturbance in the sanctuary. The visitor load in-creases almost tenfold during February, when the templein a village about 6 km across the river from Muttatticonducts its annual festival.We examined a 5 km stretch of the river betweenBhimeshvari (12
N, 77
E) and Muttatti (12
E; see Figure 1). An ecotourism fishing resort, theCauvery Fishing Camp, is located in Bhimeshwari withinthe CWS. This resort regularly attracts anglers and otherecotourists between November and March.
The study was conducted between January and mid-March 2002.
The entire stretch was divided into 1 km lengths,and 5 m
5 m plots were laid systematically every 50 mto quantify habitat availability. Plots were described usinghabitat parameters such as type of substrate (hard sand,loose sand, rock, stone and gravel), canopy cover, vegeta-tion cover and leaf litter, all measured as percentagecover of the plot. ‘Hard sand’ was defined as fine-tex-tured, tightly packed sand, while ‘Loose sand’ was coarseand loosely packed. Any boulder (mainly granite) wascalled ‘rock’, fist-sized pieces of rock were called ‘stones’,and ‘gravels’ are small-sized stones roughly under 5 mmin diameter.The study area was surveyed on foot every other dayfor a period of 6 weeks. ‘Otter-sites’ were identified alongboth banks of the river. These were recognized as areasmarked with spraints, pugmarks and signs of play typicalof otters. Sites chosen for sampling availability of habitatwere called ‘non-otter sites’ if these signs of otter use werenot found there. Any burrow or rock crevice, distinctlymarked at the entrance with spraints and otter pugmarkswas considered a holt. Plots 5 m
5 m were laid withspraints as the centre and described according to the siteand holt criteria stated above. Frequency of usage of eachotter site was recorded based on appearance of newspraints and pugmarks on each visit to a site. Old signswere not removed to minimize intrusive influences on otterbehaviour. New pugmarks were recognized by the clarityof the imprints. Spraints aged rapidly due to the hot anddry climate, and new spraints were distinguishable byform, colour and odour. Eight islands which were thoughtto be representative of the surrounding habitat, approxi-mately equidistant from each other, were chosen from atotal of twenty-four and studied similarly. Islands werescanned by boat every alternate day for the same period.Surveys were conducted at the same time everyday andalong the same route, so as to avoid bias.
 Anthropogenic disturbances:
Anthropogenic activitieswere given scores of 1, 2 or 3 based on the perceived effectthe disturbance had on the otters. A score of ‘3’ representedmaximum disturbance, caused by commercial fishing;signs of picnickers such as trash, discarded food andsigns of fire were scored 2; disturbance caused by localpeople and ecotourists was considered to have the leastnegative effect on otters, and was scored 1. A human activityincident was defined as a single collection of signs of thesame activity.We calculated disturbance levels for each 1 km stretchand island using the following relation:Disturbance level =
*total no. of incidents of activity
 /observer effort, where
was the type of activity.We defined visit frequency as the number of visits byotters to a 1 km stretch or island, per otter site per unitobserver effort. The number of otter-sites in a stretchcould be a function of habitat quality rather than anthro-pogenic disturbance. To tease out this habitat effect whilecomparing visit frequency with disturbance index, thevisit frequency was calculated by averaging the numberof otter visits across all sites in the 1 km stretch or island.Visit frequency = total number of visits by otters/numberof otter sites/observer effort.
STATISTICA 5.0 was used for all statistical analyses
.As the data were not normally distributed, a Mann–
Figure 1.
Map of the study area showing sites with varying intensities of disturbance levels and correspondingfrequencies of otter visits to the areas. ‘Low’, ‘medium’ and ‘high’ were subjectively decided based on the per-ceived effects from field observations. Disturbance level value
0.01 was considered low disturbance, while dis-turbance levels were those >
0.5 (highest being 1.63); medium disturbance levels were values between low andhigh. Similarly, otter visit frequencies were ascribed as low (<
0.2), medium (0.2–0.4) and high (>
0.4); values forvisit frequency ranged from 0 to 0.67 (Inset) Map of India from Wikipedia
Whitney U test was used to test the hypothesis that ottersites are different in habitat make-up from non-otter sites,by comparing the difference in means for each habitat para-meter. A Principal Component Analysis (PCA) was usedto quantitatively and qualitatively describe otter sites andnon-otter sites with respect to their composition of impor-tant habitat parameters, and understand how these sitesdiverge from each other according to their structural com-position. Varimax-normalized rotations were used to obtaina clear pattern of factor loadings. Quantitative tests werenot conducted for data on holts, as the number of observations was statistically insufficient. These data wereexamined qualitatively. The relationship between anthro-pogenic disturbance and number of otter sites, as well asotter visit frequency, in each 1 km stretch or island, wasanalysed using Spearman’s correlation. The hypothesisthat visit frequency is different in disturbed and undis-turbed sites was tested using Mann–Whitney U-test, asthe data were nonparametric. River bank stretches and islandswith a disturbance level value <
0.3 were considered un-disturbed, and those
0.3 were considered disturbed sites.These threshold values were determined subjectively,based on our perception of high and low disturbance.Geographic positions of all sites were recorded on aGarmin GPS receiver, and data were transferred to anArcview shapefile. Landcover was digitized
on Map-Info 5.0 using topographic maps of the region from Sur-vey of India, and transferred to ArcView 3.2, which wasused to generate maps
. Sites were classified by distur-bance (low, medium, high, based on values calculated earlier)and otter visit frequency (low, medium, high based onvalues calculated earlier). These data were represented asa map of the study site (Figure 1) showing otter visit fre-quencies at various disturbance levels.
A total of 23 otter sites were identified – 11 on riverbanksand 12 on islands. A total of 206 non-otter sites weresampled on islands as well as river banks. The correlationmatrix (not shown) of the habitat parameters showed leaf litter and canopy cover to be highly correlated (
= 0.84,
< 0.001). As grooming and basking are important ac-tivities at a spraint site
, we decided that canopy coverwas of greater significance than leaf litter, the lattermerely being a result of the presence of a canopy; henceleaf litter was eliminated from further analyses. TheMann–Whitney U-test (Table 1) compared the differencebetween mean percentage of cover of each parameter inotter sites and non-otter sites. Parameters that were sig-nificantly different at the 5% level of significance were

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