These delightful creatures are abundant on our coast yet few people have seen them.
What is relatively easy to find is signs of them having passed by the previous night, leaving clear tracks in wet sand or mud. To identify the track the clue is in the name, a large clawless track often in pairs with occasional tail drag marks. Almost every trail I guide I’m able to point out the tell-tale tracks to delighted visitors to the area.
Cape Clawless Otter or Groot Otter, is the second largest freshwater species of otter. African Clawless Otters are found near permanent bodies of water. They range through most of sub-Saharan Africa, except for the Congo basin and arid areas. They are characterized by partly webbed and clawless feet, from which their name is derived.
African Clawless Otters have thick, smooth fur with an almost silky underbelly. Chestnut in colour, they are characterized by white facial markings that extend downward towards their throat and chest area. Paws are partially webbed with five fingers, and no opposable thumbs. Adults are 160cm in length including tail, weighing 10-21kg.
They will only be found within reach of fresh water which is deceiving because their nocturnal wanderings can be extensive. Logs, branches, and loose foliage greatly appeal to the otter as this provides shelter, shade and great rolling opportunities. Slow and rather clumsy on land, they build burrows in banks near water, allowing for easier food access and a quick escape from predators. The diet of Aonyx capensis primarily includes water dwelling animals such as crabs, fish, frogs, and worms. They dive after prey to catch it, then swim to shore again where they eat. Their hands come in handy as searching devices and are sensitive for feeling under boulders, picking up rocks and reaching into holes and cracks they are great tools for digging on the muddy bottoms of ponds and rivers, Extremely sensitive whiskers are used as sensors in the water to pick up the movements of potential prey. They are as comfortable hunting in crashing waves as they are in still ponds.
Females give birth to litters containing 2-5 young around early spring. Mating takes place in short periods throughout the rainy season in December. Afterwards, both male and females go their separate ways and return to a solitary life once more. Young are raised solely by the females reaching full maturity around one year of age.
Though mostly solitary animals, African clawless otters will live in neighbouring territories of family groups of up to 5 individuals. Each still having their own range within that territory, they mostly keep to themselves unless seeking a mate. Territories are marked using a pair of anal glands which secrete a particular scent. Each otter is very territorial over its particular range. If threatened, a high pitched scream is emitted to warn neighbouring otters and confuse a predator.
Keep a watchful eye and ear out for these charismatic animals.