No, Singapore isn’t being overrun by otters: ‘Otterman’ biologist

A family of otters basks in the sun at Marina Bay. Photo: Bernard ‘OtterGrapher’ Seah
A family of otters basks in the sun at Marina Bay. Photo: Bernard ‘OtterGrapher’ Seah

With the humans in hiding, furry fish-eating mammals have emerged from the sea to roam Singapore and feast from its ponds, prompting some to ask: Are we in for otter annihilation?

Although increasing numbers of the adorable sea animals have sparked concerns about overpopulation, one expert says fears of them taking over the city are misplaced.

“The reason why there’s no need for concern is because the numbers will naturally be managed,” N Sivasothi, a lecturer from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Biological Sciences, told Coconuts Singapore on Friday. 

Since movement and commerce became strictly regulated to combat the spread of COVID-19 in early April, eyewitnesses have spotted otters fearlessly basking along an empty Little India street, fighting at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park, and feasting on prized fish in private ponds. 

The spate of incidents has caused some to worry that what up until now had been beloved animals could be ‘turning into pests.’

According to Sivasothi, who goes by the moniker “Otterman” in the obsessive OtterWatch community, their population will be kept in check by things like road accidents, territorial fights, and the low survival rate of newborn pups. 

In short, every ecosystem can sustain a finite amount of life.

“There’s a natural limit to the number of animals living in a space. So there are territorial battles going on every day. Also, reproduction rates and cub survival may be poorer when families are living in sub-optimal conditions,” he said. 

He also noted the number of roadkill otters in Singapore last year. 

“Last year we counted 10, carcasses are sent to [Wildlife Reserves Singapore] for autopsy,” he said.

While otters may have become emboldened to roam the streets as human traffic has decreased, Sivasothi said the prevalence of social media may exaggerate their numbers.

“Social media can amplify the presence of an animal and you might think they are all over the place but actually it’s the same family in multiple spots which are widely separated but they are coming to the screen in front of you repeatedly,” he said.

Why otters go to ‘unusual places’

Otters have lately appeared in condominium swimming pools, hospitals, and Bishan park, where they apparently dined on pond fish.

Sivasothi said families are constantly on the move to look for places to sleep and hide. These may include spaces under bridges and the gaps between buildings. They will fight with other trespassing otter families.

“Their primary purpose now is to look for a long-term place to settle down which isn’t occupied by a competing family,” Sivasothi said. 

He added: “The nomadic nature and the less traffic means they are able to explore unusual areas.”

Otters also need to feed while looking for a place to settle in, he said. 

There are about 90 otters in Singapore, with four to 16 in each family, according to Sivasothi. It is not clear how many otter families there are as the animals move locations every day. 

Places around Singapore where you can spot otters. Source: Otter Working Group Singapore
Places around Singapore where you can spot otters. Source: Otter Working Group Singapore

Otter watching in Singapore

Singapore also has a community of 30 to 40 otter enthusiasts who regularly stakeout for otters and post updates about them online. 

Known as Otter Watchers, they typically head out early in the morning, before the animals wake up around 5:30am, to catch a sight of them. Some would stake out the night before, or spend days just looking for otter families.

These watchers usually differentiate the otter families based on the family structure (i.e. the number of adults and pups), its behavior, and the areas they occupy. 

“It’s really a uniquely Singapore experience,” Sivasothi said. He encouraged observers to watch from a distance. 

The OtterWatch online community was formed in 2010 as part of a research project to gather data which then became an educational platform for the masses. Sivasothi is also part of the Otter Working Group Singapore, which handles otter-related matters together with NParks and the Animal Concerns Concerns Research and Education Society. 

Other stories you should check out:
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K Shanmugam urges public to stop harassing clinic where Loki the dog was put to sleep
Singapore’s dog-bot enforcer ‘dystopian’ to late night American TV

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