Chutes and Otters
Within the scientific field of animal behavior, research topics such as parental care, natural selection, and feeding tendencies seem to arise far more frequently than animal play. After all, a life in the wild tends to revolve less around play and more around survival. For some animals, however, play is an integral part of their lifestyles and ultimately their perseverance. River otters, for example, are social animals with a playful and charismatic reputation. As their name suggests, river otters do not typically stray far from waterways, and some Snapshot Wisconsin cameras are perfectly positioned to capture interesting otter behavior. We have observed otters grooming together, wrestling with one another, and – perhaps most amusingly for our staff and volunteers – sliding across the snow. At the bottom of this post there is a compilation of otter slide photos.
Undeniably, sliding across snow or mud is an effective method for locomotion when you compare it an otter’s normal gate – a cylindrical body bounding on short legs. It’s the kind of body shape that glides effortlessly through the water but doesn’t demonstrate the same sort of grace on land. Those proportions make it especially tough to traverse snow, just take it from the otter pictured on the right.
Is sliding truly just an efficient way to travel, or does the otter’s seemingly spirited nature play a role in this behavior as well? A 2005 paper published in the Northeastern Naturalist suggests that it could be both. The study analyzed 5 minutes and 49 seconds of video of wild otters in Pennsylvania. The otters were observed sliding 16 times, an excessive number for the sake of conserving energy.
The term “otter slide” doesn’t just refer to a mode of transportation, however. It can also refer to the marks near riverbanks that are left when otters slide in and out of the water. Often repeated otter sliding will occur near latrine sites, where the animals will go to deposit and read scent-coded messages from other otters in the area. The slides are such a great indicator of otter presence, that the Wisconsin DNR conducts aerial surveys in the winter to help determine population trends. Whatever the motivation is behind the sliding behavior, we certainly enjoy watching it on our trail cameras.