Asian Small-Clawed Otter

Asian Small-Clawed Otter

[ Aonyx cinera ]

Quick Facts


BODY LENGTH: 17 to 24 inches
TAIL LENGTH: 10 to 14 inches

2 to 11 pounds

WILD DIET: crustaceans, mollusks, frogs, and occasionally fish
ZOO DIET: canned cat food, cat chow, ribs, crickets, and fish such as capelin, smelt, and minnows
DISTRIBUTION: Southeast Asia, including northwestern and southern India, southeastern China, Sumatra, Indonesia, Borneo, the Rio Archipelago, and the Malay Peninsula; their overall population is unknown, but their numbers are declining due to water pollution
HABITAT: shallow coastal waters, rice paddies, rivers, and creeks



Little Known Otters

Otters are almost everywhere

Otters are near the top of the list of peoples’ favorite animals. They fill the bill when it comes to being attractive to us: they’re cute, playful, furry, and funny. But what a lot of people don’t know about these amphibious members of the weasel family is that there are a dozen different species, and otters are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. The smallest is the Asian small-clawed otter, which lives in the waters of Southeast Asia. At about two feet long and less than ten pounds, these otters are less than half the size of North American river otters.

Water weasel
Look closely at an otter swimming and you’ll see why they are so comfortable in water. Their body is sleek, long and flexible, perfect for negotiating sunken logs and tangles of vegetation in search of food. With legs tucked up tightly and a strong, tapered tail with a flattened underside, their distinctly streamlined shape cuts smoothly through the water.

Not surprisingly, Asian small-clawed otters have small claws—tiny, peg-like claws that don’t extend beyond the fingertips. Their fingers are stumpy but nimble, with webbing between the digits up to the last knuckle. Unlike otters with more webbing, small-clawed otters use their agile forepaws to catch food. Otters with more webbing between their toes are mouth-oriented—they tend to catch prey in their jaws

Things are going just swimmingly
All their aquatic adaptations make Asian small-clawed otters formidable predators. They cruise freshwater rivers and streams and saltwater coastal waters looking for crabs, mollusks (octopus is a favorite), frogs, and occasionally, fish. They are fast and flexible swimmers, propelling themselves by flexing their bodies up and down. When they catch up to prey, they grab it with their hands, then pull it to their mouth to be eaten immediately.

Otters seem to have endless energy, but they have to eat often to keep it up. A typical day involves several swimming and hunting sessions of about an hour each. Rest periods, when they’ll lounge on a bank or shore, fill the rest of their day.

Bringing up baby
The bond between mated pairs of Asian small-clawed otters is very strong. Both the male and female raise the young and are devoted parents. Baby otters are born with their eyes closed. At forty days old their eyes open, and at 60 days the pups are accomplished swimmers. Asian small-clawed otters live in extended family groups of up to 12 individuals. The entire family helps raise the young, which are among the most active and playful of baby animals.

The serious business of playin’
“Playful” is the first word that comes to mind when we think of otters—and they certainly are that. But in the otter world, playing is a lot more than just having fun! For young otters, it’s an important part of the process of learning to be an adult in a big family group. In order for everyone to get along, there have to be certain rules of conduct, just like in any community. Play behavior forms and strengthens bonds between these sociable animals and reinforces the rules of otter lifestyle. It also sharpens hunting and fighting skills that may be the key to survival later in life.

Asian small-clawed otters at Brookfield Zoo
You can see Asian small-clawed otters in two exhibits at Brookfield Zoo—in Tropic World: Asia and in the Fragile Rain Forest.

The Asian Small-clawed Otter Species Survival Plan works to establish healthy zoo populations. Brookfield Zoo is an active participant in this project, and has bred small-Clawed otters since 1987. By selectively breeding small-clawed otters, Brookfield Zoo and other zoos hope to ensure the survival of this species.

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society