A study of chemical secretions produced by the Eurasian otter has indicated that they vary depending on where in the UK the animal is from.
Researchers from the Otter Project at Cardiff University have found that otters produce distinct odours for communicating with other individuals, which can be region-specific.
The variation may have happened as a result of geographical separation, and could now cause problems for rehabilitating rescued otters.
Dr Elizabeth Chadwick from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences says: “In the same way that people from London may not understand some of the verbal dialect of people from Cardiff, groups of otters with different odour dialects may not be able to pick up identifying information from each other.”
Many mammals use chemical signalling to establish territories, attract a mate and identify other animals in the area.
An otter scent marks using a pair of anal glands, leaving “messages” that other otters can use to determine its sex, age and individual identity.
The research indicated that otters with more distinctive odour patterns were more genetically diverse.
As yet, it is unclear how exactly the otters process the information they receive from the chemical differences. If they don’t “like” or “understand” a specific odour, they may be deterred from interacting with the animal that produced it.
However, genetic diversity is important for a healthy population, so otters that are attracted to unfamiliar odours run a reduced risk of inbreeding.
With this new information, it is important to consider the implications that may arise in recovery programmes, where captive otters from different regions may not interact as successfully.
“Given the evidence that difference in scent does reflect genetic differentiation,” adds Dr Chadwick, “It is something that ought to be given more attention.”