A pair of Asian Small-clawed Otters at the Santa Barbara Zoo produced their first litter of pups. Three healthy offspring were born in a nesting box in their holding area on October 7.
As in the wild, Otter parents prefer to keep their pups safely tucked in a den. The Zoo’s newborn Otters will not leave the behind the scenes holding area until they are old enough to safely swim and have grown the teeth needed to eat solid foods.
Depending on how their development progresses, keepers estimate the pups could go on exhibit as early as mid-December.
Animal Care staff had recently confirmed that new mom, Gail, was pregnant and estimated that she was due any day. When keepers arrived the morning of October 7, Gail and the father, Peeta, remained in the nesting box.
“The parents didn’t come out to greet us, and then we heard squeaks,” said the Zoo’s Curator of Mammals Michele Green. “That’s how we knew Gail had given birth.”
Gestation is 68 days, and after birthing, the female stays in the nesting box with the pups. Otter moms are given some relief, however, when new dads take over care for short periods of time.
Both of the adult Otters are first-time parents. According to keepers, the pair is showing excellent parenting skills toward the two females and one male.
“Gail only arrived in March and it’s been fun to watch them bond, and now become parents,” says Green. “She’s a young mom, but doing very well. Peeta is attentive and diligent.”
Peeta was born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. in 2008. Gail was born at the Greensboro Science Center in North Carolina in 2013. The two were paired as part of a cooperative breeding program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The names (inspired by characters in the popular “Hunger Games” books and movies) were given by their Santa Barbara Zoo sponsors, Peter and Pieter Crawford-van Meeuwen.
Another female, Katniss, was first paired with Peeta, but they did not breed. She passed away in December 2016 from a kidney ailment.
The last time Asian Small-clawed Otters were born at the Zoo was in May 2011 when six pups were born to a pair named Jillian and Bob. That pair also produced five young in August 2010, the first of the species to be born at the Zoo in more than 20 years. The entire family group later moved to the National Zoo, where they live today.
Keepers predict that by January, the pups should be proficient swimmers, and will be on-exhibit at that time. Information on the progress of the Otter pups will be made available at the Zoo’s website: www.sbzoo.org .
Although the Asian Small-clawed Otter (Aonyx cinerea syn. Amblonyx cinereus) is only listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN, the species is seriously threatened by rapid habitat destruction for palm oil farming and by hunting and pollution. They are considered an “indicator species,” meaning their population indicates the general health of their habitat and of other species.
The species is the smallest Otter in the world and lives in freshwater wetlands and mangrove swamps throughout Southeast Asia, including southern India and China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula. They prefer quiet pools and sluggish streams for fishing and swimming.
Unlike Sea Otters, they spend more time on land than in water, but they are skillful, agile swimmers and divers, with great endurance. They can stay submerged for six to eight minutes.
Asian small-clawed otters are about two feet long and weigh less than ten pounds (half the size of North American River Otters). Their claws do not protrude beyond the ends of the digital pads, thus their names, and their feet do not have fully developed webbing and look very much like human hands.
They are one of the few species of Otter that live in social groups. The bond between mated pairs of Asian Small-clawed Otters is very strong. Both the male and female raise the young and are devoted parents. In the wild, Asian Small-clawed Otters live in extended family groups of up to 12 individuals. The entire family helps raise the young, which are among the most active and playful of baby animals.