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Andrew Sheriff: Scat Hunter

Scouring the coastline for poo, and not just for fun
August 22, 2015

Andrew Sheriff ties his boat to a barnacle-encrusted rock and clambers onto the rocks, pockets stuffed with plastic bags. I try to keep up as he ducks under fallen logs and crashes through salal bushes, following a trail only he can see through the dense coastal forest.

We arrive at a clearing that has been meticulously swept of branches, the bushes ripped from the ground and anything larger than a twig removed. There are holes everywhere around the clearing; we’re standing on top of a complex of otter dens.

Having found the spot, Andrew stoops to pick up his prize: a pile of river otter poo.

This is what he does in his free time.

“I do other things!” he says, defensively, and then admits, “Everyone’s really sick of me talking about it.”

A strange hobby though it may seem (and it is), there is also a purpose to his scavenging. Andrew is gathering data that can help him understand how two similar species interact.

“River otters appear to be eating different things when there are, or are not, sea otters around,” he says. 

In areas without sea otters, the smaller river otters may prefer intertidal invertebrates like crabs and urchins – but where the two species overlap, the river otters may be getting squeezed out of their preferred prey and forced to make do on fish.

To find out if that is the case, Andrew has designed a simple survey: he analyzes droppings from river otters in areas with and without sea otters to see how their diets differ. But first, he has to collect samples. So far he has collected well over 150 piles of digested seafood.

All of which begs the question, how does he find the samples? By smell, of course.

“They kind of smell like otters,” he says, simply.

“A bit of a fishy smell, a bit musky.”

He extends his hand to let me smell; he’s right.

As Andrew explores the area around the main clearing, I get the feeling that if only I could sit and wait quietly, the community beneath my feet might reveal itself to me. Sure enough, as I sit quietly and write the previous sentence in my notebook, an otter pops out of a hole in the ground, and darts back inside. Seconds later, it – or possibly a different otter – emerges from another hole and runs past me to the water.

When Andrew returns, hands full of otter scat, I tell him about my encounter. He seems less excited about it than what he has in his hands. And fair enough: while it was exciting to see the animals up close, it was fleeting, and I came away not much better off. His bags of poo, however, could bring all of us that much closer to understanding an important aspect of otter behaviour and the ecology of the coast.

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