20 February 2012 by Julienne du Toit

On track with otters and meerkats

Looking at tracks on our morning walk route, a process of deduction begins.

Every morning my husband, Chris, and I walk at the golf course in Cradock with the dogs (German shepherds that are keen but useless hunters, thank goodness). The golf course is placed along the Fish River. It’s a river known for its fast and more or less constant flow by canoeists who come to do the Fish River Canoe Marathon.

Next to the golf course are the (naturally) Golf Course Rapids. After rains in this arid-zone town where we live, the rapids are particularly loud. Any river attracts life, and the golf course stretch is no exception.

It’s common to see the neat little hoof prints of a steenbuck, an attractive and ubiquitous antelope that you’ll see all over the deep countryside. They often occur in pairs. When sprinting for safety, they flash their white tails and hindquarters. They’re showing their white panties, says a friend of mine.

Sometimes you’ll see the prints of what looks at 1st like a pterodactyl – but which are more likely to be from a black-headed heron.

But the other day there were other kinds of tracks. Something interesting had walked down the river path. I couldn’t identify it, and took a picture with my cellphone. At home I had a look through 1 of my stalwart field guide books, Clive Walker’s Signs of the Wild.

There were 2 clear choices. The 5-fingered tracks with claws clearly showing could either have been from a meerkat (diggers of note, with powerful claws) or 1 other candidate: a spotted-neck otter, with webbed toes.

Now, if you’re looking at tracks, a process of deduction begins. The 1st consideration is timing. How fresh is the track? Is it still so recently made that the edges of the track are crisp and clear?

In the case of my track, more or less. That means it might well have been made in the late afternoon the day before, or perhaps the early morning. There are meerkats living around 500m away, but meerkats are kind of solar-powered. When the sunlight falls on their burrow, they emerge. When the sunlight is gone, they’re back underground.

There was only 1 track, which wouldn’t be the case with meerkats – they come in a pack. Plus, the spotted-neck otter is known to be an early riser. So it might well have been this otter, a creature I have never seen.

There are meerkats living around 500m away, but meerkats are kind of solar-powered. When the sunlight falls on their burrow, they emerge.

I’ve only ever glimpsed its cousin, the charismatic Cape clawless otter, triple the size and with a capacity for noisy enjoyment of rapids.

According to Walker’s book, the spotted-neck otter weighs about 5kg, occurs singly or in small groups and lives next to backwaters of perennial rivers. The distribution map shows it occurs near here, but such distribution maps are malleable when it comes to watercourses.

This otter eats frogs, fish, crabs and insects, and with its webbed fingers, probes around under stones or in holes along the water’s edge. It creates channels through the vegetation or reeds at a river’s edge.

I’ll never be able to walk along that river’s edge again without scanning the ground for more otter tracks.

Category: Wildlife

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