by Whit Gibbons

February 7, 2016

The email message was short - "You may add Lontra canadensis to your mammal list!" - but I was delighted. Lontra canadensis is the scientific name of the river otter, and the message meant we had increased the number of confirmed terrestrial mammals on our land to 17. Learning to read spoor can make an ordinary trip through the woods, along a road or beside a wetland more interesting year-round.

I relied on spoor to document the presence of otters at the land. "Spoor" is a quirky word that in the broadest sense means an environmental clue to the past that has been left by an animal. Parallel, finger-length footprints in the snow let you know for sure that a rabbit was there.

An experienced wildlife tracker would even be able to say how long ago. An overpowering, pungent smell along a highway reveals that you have crossed paths with a skunk, which probably met its demise as roadkill. Scat (animal droppings) can provide especially valuable environmental clues about unseen wildlife in an area.

Many people like making lists of one sort or another. As an ecologist, I particularly enjoy knowing what plants and animals are around me when I'm outdoors.

We have some land with woods and a stream where I enjoy conducting biological inventories for my own edification, not as part of a scientific study.

Compiling the list of wildlife species we encounter is a gratifying exercise. Knowing we have 18 kinds of amphibians, 28 types of reptiles and 38 kinds of trees gives me a feeling of accomplishment and makes me eager to find the next one in each category. I liked adding a cool creature like a river otter to our mammal list.

A sure way to know that otters are around without actually seeing one is to find one of their latrines, which they return to on a regular basis. Otter latrines are not yucky nor do they smell bad. They consist mostly of a pile of crushed mollusk shells and fish scales and maybe a few small bones.

When my grandson and I found such a pile on a ridge along our stream, he immediately said "otter." I concurred but wanted confirmation from an expert. I contacted Leslie Ruyle, who has conducted extensive otter ecology studies.

Leslie, who had been a University of Georgia graduate student and is now on the faculty at Texas A&M, took one look at the photo and validated our ID.

Sophisticated instrumentation of all sorts is now available for ecological studies. Radiotelemetry can tell us where animals go. Radiography and sonography may be used to determine how many eggs an animal has.

A college student studying reptiles in a lake recently showed me video of swimming and basking turtles that had been taken from a drone he was operating.

Such gadgetry can unquestionably be a valuable tool for studying nature. But learning to recognize basic environmental clues allows anyone to enjoy nature. Gadgetry should not replace observation.

Sometimes even the simplest environmental clues can tell us something about wildlife in the world around us. Finding the mud tower surrounding a crawfish hole, seeing a tree that has been girdled by a beaver, identifying the readily recognizable footprint of a raccoon on a muddy creek bank all offer gratifying wildlife experiences that let us know we have company. We do not need to see, hear or smell the animal itself to discover we are not alone.

My family and I will continue enjoying nature in the old-school way by looking for spoor in the form of tracks and other signs. But we hope to get further documentation of river otters along our stream using a more modern approach.

We have set up a wildlife camera along the ridge where we think they visit on a regular basis. Sometimes you need to combine the old and the new to get the full picture of nature.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

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