Lessons learned from the otter meme
I have mixed feelings every time I see a river otter meme pop up on my Facebook feed. They are my favourite animal, and they are often very funny, and cute as anything, but as a wildlife biologist, I often wonder whether it impacts how people perceive the species.
A favourite in internet memes because of their charming and expressive faces, river otters are riveting animals. However, they are rarely recognized as what they truly are — a member of the weasel, or Mustelid, family.
Although often portrayed as bad-tempered and vicious, all mustelids are actually solitary, secretive, and shy. If you are lucky enough to see one in their natural habitat, you will also quickly learn about their intelligence, resourcefulness and playfulness.
I learned this first-hand while I was an intern in Terra Nova National Park, on the east coast of Newfoundland. I had completed a feasibility study concerning the reintroduction of river otters in PEI, where they were extirpated more than 200 years ago from overhunting. I learned a lot about the species, and I was keen to do some on-the-ground work.
Just before beginning my career at the Nature Conservancy of Canada, I spent five weeks working with park ecologists who were studying the elusive habits of river otters. In the study, ecologists identified several sites in the park where otters were known to rest, eat and play.
These sites are usually located close to the water, where river otters can easily scramble up carrying food in their mouth but just as quickly can slide back in the water in case a predator approaches. We set up wildlife cameras in each of the sites, with hopes that we could document their behavior and eating habits.
Since it was the first time in the park that cameras had been set up in otter habitat, we weren’t really sure what to expect. We waited with eager anticipation for a few days, and then headed back out to collect the data.
We couldn’t believe our luck, and the footage we managed to collect! Not only did we collect footage from river otters, but several other creatures that live at Terra Nova National Park. The footage was compiled into a YouTube clip (right).
There’s a common theme in animal behavior and ecology that argues that when you observe the behaviour of an animal, you are not observing natural behaviour but the behaviour of an animal that knows it’s being watched. So it was mesmerizing for me to sit back and watch the footage of river otters just being river otters — eating, rolling, sliding or playing with litter mates. Every once in a while, they would notice the camera and natural curiosity would take over their intelligent faces. It was an excellent beginning to my career in conservation, and one that I will never forget.
It’s a well-known fact that you can’t always believe what you read on the internet, and this is especially important when the subject is wildlife. A meme or story about an animal might be very far from the truth. An important part of helping protect wildlife is eliminating false stories that surround them. If you are thinking of sharing something like a cute otter meme, consider instead finding live video camera footage to share (like Hancock Wildlife Foundation’s live video streams). That way, people can grow to love wildlife for their true and natural behaviour!