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Graduate Education

A River Otter's Hot Spot?
The Latrine Originally published September 19, 2016 on NYTimes.com

River otters on the coast of Alaska lead unusual lives. For the males, much of their social life centers on a shared bathroom area.
Other animals, like honey badgers and meerkats, also share bathroom sites, called latrines. And they pick up information about other members of their species from the scents left there.
River otters, which are in the same family as sea otters but a different genus, not only pick up information from scat and urine and anal gland emissions, but have all sorts of social interactions around the bigger latrines.
Adi Barocas, a doctoral student at the University of Wyoming, has been studying river otters as part of a project that the university has had going for about 25 years. It began shortly after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the Alaskan coast.
The project involves research on many aspects of otter life, including how they form social groups. Among coastal river otters, which are different from more inland populations, the males live and forage for fish in fluid groups of as few as four otters or as many as 18. Females are solitary, and males leave their groups during mating season to find females.
When the males are together, however, they play and groom each other and, before they defecate, often do what Mr. Barocas describes as “the poop dance.”
In videos taken by cameras set up near latrines, the male otters wave their back ends rhythmically, stepping from one hind foot to the other.
Exactly what the poop dance means isn’t clear, Mr. Barocas said. But he and Merav Ben-David, his adviser, and other researchers, reported in the October issue of Animal Behaviour, that the interactions at the latrines are helping the males decide which groups to join. They may be learning, for example, which otters are catching more fish, from chemical clues in the scat.
One thing made clear in the many hours of video: These otters give new meaning to the term “party pooper.”

Learn more about Dr. Ben-David and UW's Program in Ecology.


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