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May 03, 2005

Mammals of Iraq: Otters

Major Ed, on his photograph of an Iraqi Otter.

I added a horrible picture of a river otter. I see these guys quite often. I donít know much about them. I will say they are very small compared to what I am used to an otter looking like.

There are three known species of otter from Iraq. Two are common. Lutra lutra, the Common or Eurasian Otter, and Lutra perspicillata, the Smooth-Coated Otter. According to Arabian Mammals, the otters Major Ed is spotting are probably the Eurasian species.

"The two otter species occur together in the Tigris and it is the class of food they prefer, the way they catch it and their ranging patterns that are likely to differ most. The common otter is the smaller and more widespread species, occurring throughout Eurasia. It includes a wider range of generally smaller foods in its diet and these may be hunted over a smaller area of both land and water than the larger smooth-coated otter. The latter is distinguished by the Al Hammar fishermen as the 'black otter'. It has a flatter tail and larger hindlegs which implies that it is more wholly aquatic and it is known to have little interest in birds and mammals. A more specialised diet of larger, rarer prey would require much larger hunting grounds. The teeth are very much more robust than those of the common otter so larger, tougher fish and more crustaceans are likely. It is altogether a more specialised and rarer otter with a discontinuous range over much of South-East Asia. The Tigris is its isolated and most westerly outpost."

The third otter one might expect to find in Iraq is Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli, Maxwell's Otter, probably extinct, known only from two specimens, yet paradoxically the most well known, as a member of the species was the subject of Ring of Bright Water, a bestseller in the Sixties, and perhaps the most disturbing children's film ever made.

I was seven years old, and my sister ten, when my mother took us to see this film at the local 70s fleapit. Mostly, we loved it. We were thrilled by the playfulness of the otter; we delighted in the scenes where Mij the otter misbehaves: on a fight to London, on a night train to Scotland. Indeed we gurgled quite happily until the final scenes of the film, when, quite suddenly, Mij the otter is killed by a labourer: sliced in half with a spade.

My sister and I stared at the cinema screen, stunned. When it became apparent Mij wasn't coming back, that they really had just killed him, we started crying, really sobbing. My mother urgently hustled us out of the Odeon, along with lots of other mothers with lots of other crying children, but outside, in the car, and all the way home, my sister and I continued to howl. We were wholly inconsolable; it took a good few days for us to calm down.

I've never seen the movie, though I read the book sometime during my childhood. The death of Mij was no less disturbing in print, as I recall.

Pictures of Maxwell's various otters, including the famous Mij, can be seen here. On the off chance that someone gets close enough to the Iraqi otters to make an identification, here's what's known about the appearance of Maxwell's otter;

"...very dark brown, with the underside only very slightly paler, with an iron grey chin."

Not a lot to go on, and odds are that there are no more Maxwell's Otters, but there's always hope.

Posted by Bigwig at May 3, 2005 12:34 PM | TrackBack
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It's not that bad of a picture.

And it is unusual, not the kind of otter we're used to seeing either.

So it's true what they say. It's always good to see a picture that's unlike all the otters.

Posted by: Blackavar at May 3, 2005 12:51 PM

I remember that movie, even the name of the guy who kills him:


Posted by: Captain Holly at May 3, 2005 02:05 PM
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