Project Description

Asian Small-Clawed Otter (Aonyx cinereus)


The Asian small-clawed otter is the smallest of the world’s otters. Its total length can range from 70 to 100cm, of which about 30cm is tail.

As well as its size, it can be distinguished from other otters by its small claws, after which it is named. They also have incomplete webbing between each finger and toe, which gives them a high level of manual dexterity to help them to handle their prey.

They typically have brown fur with a pale underside, although there are some cases of cream-coloured individuals. The edges of the upper lip, chin, throat, sides of the neck and face are generally greyish-white. They have two types of fur – one acts as a waterproof coat, and the other a thermal layer to keep them warm. Like other otters, the Asian small-clawed otter has a small head, short legs and a flattened tail which creates a streamlined silhouette, helping them move easily through the water.

Habitat and Distribution

They are amphibious creatures and are adept at living both on land and in water. They can be found in and around the freshwater rivers, creeks, marshes and swamps of Southeast Asia, as well as the coastal regions of Southern Indian.

They tend to prefer shallow water, where there is abundant food and sufficient vegetation. This can result in them living close to humans.


The diet of the Asian short-clawed otter consists primarily of crabs, other crustaceans, molluscs and fish, although they’ll also sometimes eat frogs, small mammals, snakes and insects.

With their dexterous front paws, they dig in and around mud or under stones to find their prey. They use their sharp back teeth to crush the shells of crabs and molluscs and have also been known to leave shells out in the sun to open in the heat.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

These otters form monogamous pairs for life, with both parents contributing to the raising of their offspring. The female gives birth to up to 2 litters each year, each containing up to 7young but usually just 1 or 2.  The pups are born after a gestation period of around 60 days and are relatively underdeveloped at this time, being mostly immobile with their eyes still shut. They remain in their dens for the next few weeks, nursing and sleeping. Their eyes open after 40 days and begin eating solid food after a further 40 days. Young otters stay with their mother until the next litter is born.

The life span of the Asian small-clawed otter is around 11 to 16 years.

Conservation Status, Threats and Actions

IUCN Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Population Trend: Decreasing

The most significant threat to the Asian small-clawed otter is the destruction of its habitat. Throughout Asia, rivers, swamps and other bodies of water are being drained for agriculture, forcing the otters to move closer to human activity. In order to eat, they often kill fish and poach prawn stocks, resulting in them being killed by farmers and fishermen. They are also hunted for their pelts and organs, which can be used in traditional medicines. A further threat to the Asian small-clawed otter is pollution, which can affect both the otters themselves as well as their prey. Pesticides used in agriculture often leak into the surrounding streams and rivers, which are then indigested by a range of species.

Limited conservation measures are in place for these otters. In some places, such as Malaysia and Singapore there is some national legal protection for the otters themselves, however there is currently nothing in place to protect their habitats. The IUCN has an Otter Specialist Group which is made up of biologists working across Asia to conduct field surveys and popularise otter conservation. Nevertheless, a concerted conservation effort is required if the long-term survival of the Asian small-clawed otter is to be assured.

Fun Facts

Asian small-clawed otters are social animals and they often live in family groups. They communicate with each other using a vocabulary of at least 12 calls, including greeting, mating and alarm calls.

Keepers Notes

Here at the zoo we have 6 small-clawed otters, Mr Chips and his five pups. They are the greediest animals in the entire zoo and get fed five times a day!