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Monday, September 2, 2013

Land of the Giants: The Pantanal

Giant otter, Brazil (8/13)

The Pantanal of Brazil truly is home to giants. The tallest bird in South America (Greater Rhea), massive reptiles like the anaconda and caiman and the largest rodent in the world (capybara) all roam the Pantanal. There are even three species of mammal with the moniker "giant": an armadillo, an anteater and an otter. This post is about the latter.

We were fortunate enough to see TWO species of otters on our trip to the Pantanal. Both sightings, about 24 hours apart, were from boats while on the Paraguay River. It was our second day on the river when our boatman spotted this family of giant otters. There were seven in total, but I never did manage a photo of them all together. We had another john boat with us and I thought for sure our time with the otters would be brief. I mean, look at their reactions above. By the time we got the boat stopped and I took my first photo, two of the otters (adults??) had already bolted for the safety of the water. The rest sure looked ready to follow. But as the anchors were deployed and the engines turned off, the otters seemed to quickly forget about us. We spent about 45 minutes watching their antics. Here are some of my favorite photos:
Giant otters at den site, Pantanal Brazil (8/13)
Here is a photo I took without too much magnification. It gives you a better idea of what the scene looked like without the benefit of a telephoto lens. A massive tree had blown over and the otters were loafing on the sandy spot left behind.  I believe the actual den entrance is to the left of the screen under the upturned root mass. There are several spots that look like holes directly under the otters, but no one ever went in them. You can also clearly see the slide in this photo.

I said our boatman Mota spotted these otters, and he did. We were cruising along at a good clip when suddenly the boat slowed. As it did, Danika turned her head and saw the animals on shore and screamed "SEALS!". She quickly recognized her error (no seals in the interior of Brazil...) but as we watched the giant otters, I could see how her initial impression was formed. Below is the seal-like face a giant otter makes when a sibling crawls over its back just after it had gotten comfortable:
Giant otters, Pantanal of Brazil

Curious giant otters
Giant otters are social animals, staying in family units that may exceed a dozen animals. So our group of seven wasn't unusual and may have been a mated pair and five young (either all the same age or from different litters). The otter to the left has a particularly young looking face to me. I don't have any scientific reason for saying that, but I think you will agree. And those chest markings! What beautiful animals. They were a bit curious about us, but as you will see, they seemed unconcerned.
Several sources list the giant otter as reaching lengths of over 6 feet, making it the longest otter species in the world. Only sea otters are heavier and that is due to the need for thick layers of insulating fat. Still, a 70 pound giant otter is a sight to behold.

You can get some sense of their size in the photo below.
Giant otter exiting the water
Here is that same individual giving us a look before settling in for a snooze with the other otters. Notice a few things: first, that is a classic mustelid pose.Otters are members of the weasel family and that otter on the left is showing you the typical elongated body of most weasels. Second, have a look at the shape of the tail. It looked more like a blade or rudder than the thick rounded tail I am used to seeing on our North American river otters here in New York. Finally, the throat patch revealed that this was one of the otters that scattered as the boats approached. Soon, the comings and goings of the otters became too confusing to monitor effectively and I gave up trying to keep track of who was who :)
Thick fur of giant otter
This otter found a place to sit and immediately started to groom itself. In the photo below, you can see the MASSIVE hind foot rising to scratch at the fur near the animal's side. Each toe and the heel pad are covered in sand, giving them stark relief from the dark wet fur. Note that this otter still has its eyes firmly glued on us:
Giant otter grooming its fur
Perhaps my favorite of all the photos is the action shot below. One of the names given to otters is "lobo de rio" or "river wolf". This probably refers to the fact that the otter is a top predator in the water like the wolf is on land. But when this otter was done scratching it shook itself in a completely dog-like fashion, just like a river wolf should:
Giant otter shaking off water
Giant otter climbing river bank

Next to arrive was the second (adult?) otter that had slipped away at our approach. Look at that tail! And look how easily this otter navigates the slide. The younger otters were smaller and not as well muscled and their struggles getting up the slide showed it. I wondered how they managed when they were younger...

Now that the family was reunited, it was time for some serious sleeping. I believe it was about 9 am when these photos were taken and the sun was not too high in the sky yet. As the otters snuggled in to their rests, I could never get a photo of all seven visible at one time. And I quickly learned that these brothers and sisters just couldn't quite get comfortable:
Sleeping giant otters
Young giant otters
This one needs a new spot, but it simply must crawl over everyone else to get there. Notice the long tail practically being dragged over the head of an unlucky sibling. And that's a hind foot sticking out as this short-legged creature ventures over the back of not one but two resting otters.

And it is too bad for you if you happen to try to use your brother's tail as a pillow and he decides that his neck is just too itchy to go unattended. A great look at the massive hind foot of a giant otter:
Scratching giant otter
"OK, I'm up, I'm up." Although those look like testicles, I think they are scent glands. Any opinions out there?
This is another favorite shot. I call this one "gato de rio" :)
 Here is my best look at a front foot of the giant otter. There are five toes on the front and rear feet and they are fully webbed. These guys look like powerful swimmers.
Front foot of giant otter
Several yawns and stretches signified that nap time was over. Although this is merely a harmless yawn, I couldn't help but be impressed by the dentition AND the size of the opening. One can also get a sense for how well-muscled those jaws are by how thick and full the cheek bulges are.
Giant otter yawning
Napping (and yawning) over, it was time for the otters to head into the water. At first this was an orderly affair. Each otter took a turn going down the slide, slipped underwater and emerged in the vegetation somewhere to the right or left of the slide. This kept me busy and soon otter heads were periscoping all over the place. I confess to have missed more shots than I got, but managed to enjoy the show nonetheless.

Giant otter emerging from the vegetation
 I wonder if the dip in the river was to regulate temperature or for grooming or both. It surely didn't seem to be about fishing, as the otters did not spend very much time in the water. Down one would go and up would come another. Once back up at the loafing spot, the otter would roll in the sand:
A few even appeared to groom each other
"Pardon me!"

Soon all was bedlam, with otters coming and going so quickly that I didn't even notice that there were fewer and fewer until suddenly they were gone. I am guessing there was an underwater entrance to that den (the dry season had just begun, so the river would drop substantially as the months progressed) as is common with our otters. Seven otters X 45 minutes = 287 photos. In all that time, no one in either boat spoke above a whisper. We passed that den site three more times on our journeys and never saw a single otter. It was a classic "right place/right time" situation and I am glad the photos came out as well as they did.

You can imagine that we were feeling a bit spoiled at this point. It is hard to quantify: Giant otters are endangered and pretty rare but they are seen regularly enough in protected areas that many tour groups get to see them. But not all views are as leisurely as ours was. In fact, the Van Niel family saw giant otters once before (in Peru), but they swam past us without as much as a greeting. So although these were not "lifers" the experience was a highlight of the trip. At the time, though, we didn't realize that our otter adventures were only half over....
Twenty-four hours after our giant otter adventure, we found ourselves in a different stretch of the Paraguay River looking for the elusive jaguar. Instead, we found the Pantanal's other otter, the neotropical otter.
Neotropic otter, Pantanal of Brazil
Laura gets the credit for spotting this one (as well as immediately recognizing that it was different than the otters we had seen the day before). At left is a good approximation of what it looked like without the aid of a telephoto lens. This otter was alone (as is typical for this species) and using a natural cave exposed in the clay by the receding water levels of the dry season. I took my first photo at 8:47 AM and the otter was just finishing off a fish...

Smaller (only about 4.5 feet long) and much lighter, the neotropic otter more closely resembles the North American river otter I am used to. This individual seemed completely unconcerned by our presence. I do not even remember him lifting his head from the grisly task of eating that fish.
Neotropical otter eating fish
As he worked the fish over, I was able to get a good look at its teeth. Sharp canines in the front and slicing carnassial molars on the side...
He left the head behind and took a long drink of water before entering the river to continue fishing. Notice the blood on its right front foot. I think that is all fish blood, but at the time I wasn't so sure. But notice that when we see him again, the paw is clean.
Below is one of my favorite photos of this guy. I just like the contrast of the green vegetation.
Neotropical otter, Pantanal Brazil
Whereas the giant otters were playful and almost lazy, this guy was all business. No sooner would he enter the water than he would emerge again with a fish! We saw him catch four fish (plus the one he was eating when we arrived) in the 23 minutes we watched him. I don't know if the fishing is always that easy, but it was on this day.
Neotropical otter with fish on the Paraguay River
Now, as otter pictures go, the one below is not all that special. But it is the only one that clearly shows the head of the fish he caught. Add the leftover head from the previous fish and I wonder if any of you gill heads out there can help me identify them.
He got to work on the new fish tail-first. We slowly maneuvered the boat so I could get a clearer view.
I am pretty pleased with the telephoto lens on that Nikon!
Neotropic otter eating fish in the Pantanal
 No leftovers this time...
 He paused again to take a drink, but I missed it. Still, an interesting shot of him headed into the water.

When he came up with his next fish, he chose a decidedly more secluded location. We sat and watched as he ate, marveling at our luck. Two species of otter in two days. According to Karen our guide, sightings of this otter are rarer than the giant otter.
Neotropic otter in the wild
Our experiences with Pantanal Ecoexplorer were exceptional. Our guide and boatman took the time to explain what we were seeing and allowed us to view the animals from a distance that did not disturb their natural behavior. We left the Pantanal knowing that we had been blessed with good weather, good people and great wildlife sightings.
Sunset on the Paraguay River, Brazil