Camera Trap Diaries: Beaver vs. Otter

beaver chasing otter (1)

beaver chasing otter (2)

beaver chasing otter (3)

These camera trap pictures are from The Clifton Institute, where I work in northern Virginia. As you can see in the photo sequence above, on March 10th a beaver seemed to chase a river otter off its lodge. At 7:43am an otter appeared, then became a blur of movement as a beaver followed it, also traveling at a faster-than-usual pace. (A beaver normally moving about maintaining the lodge the does not produce a blurry photo.)

Beaver-otter interactions are often characterized as commensal, suggesting that otters benefit from the wetland habitat beavers create, while beavers are neither harmed nor helped by sharing space with the otters. Of course, it’s not always so simple. In fact, their behaviors toward one another may vary quite a bit, depending on factors such as otter food availability, time of year, presence of beaver kits, and more. While I’m not 100% sure these photographs depict a chase, other’s reports suggest that beaver-otter social interactions are sometimes agonistic, or associated with conflict. Otters may even opportunistically prey upon beavers if fish are scarce. These three camera trap pictures seem to support research suggesting that the interactions between these two species are more complex than previously thought.

So what’s the Almost Anthropology angle here? Through my review of the research on social interactions between these two species, I discovered an amusing and very real grudge against otters by the people who study and advocate for beavers.

For example, on International Beaver Day last week, Dr. Emily Fairfax, encouraged her Twitter followers to submit questions about beavers that she would then answer.

Ben Goldfarb, author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, asked (among other things), “Why are otters so terrible?”

Emily responded, “They have a haughty attitude cause they know they’re cute. Arrogant water weasels… ”

Do ‘otter people’ also engage in this playful rivalry? Or is it only the believers in the beaver underdogs who have a fish bone to pick with otters? EVERYONE thinks otters are cute, and it doesn’t take much scrolling down a Google image search for ‘beaver’ to find a picture of an otter instead!

I find this all so fascinating because, objectively, of course, we ‘beaver people’ can appreciate otters for their role in the ecosystem and maybe even admit that they are kind of cute. We’re talking about two very similar, furry, brown critters here, graceful in the water and adorably awkward on land. Yet performing this rivalry is somehow important to our identity as beaver people. I suspect it has very little to do with the actual nonhuman animals involved and more to do with their perceived value and appeal (or lack thereof) to the general human public.

Any otter folk out there?

What do YOU think???

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