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Mammals of Iraq: Smooth-coated Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata)

Posted on Jul 1, 2008 by in Carnivores, Theme Weeks | 7 comments


Lutrogale perspicillata

Number 0186

To celebrate my boss Ramona’s successful trip to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, as well as because we’re still at war there, I’m going to be spotlighting some of the mammals of Iraq this week. These two fine fellows are smooth-coated otters, who live in Iraq’s Mesopotamian marshlands, as well as in other parts of Asia. The otters have a way of forming a semicircle with the rest of their family and sort of herding fish in front of them. In India, people who noticed this have had some success in training smooth-coated otters to herd fish right into their nets!

Smooth-coated otters are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). One famous subspecies, known only to live in Iraq, may be extinct now. This variety was called Maxwell’s otter after an author named Gavin Maxwell. Maxwell found an otter in Iraq and took it back home with him, where he raised it in the Scottish highlands. The lovable otter, Mij, became the star of a best-selling novel, Ring of Bright Water, that was adapted into a popular movie in 1969.

Now, I had never heard of this book and movie, which is both a surprise, as I was an animal-book freak as a kid, and a relief, as it has, apparently, a heartbreaking ending. I’m telling you this without a spoiler alert because I’ve been reading horror stories of children and adults alike being traumatized by the sudden tragedy in what was a playful romp of a movie. If you have kids and you want to read a great book about a pet otter with no tears, I recommend the currently out-of-print Picaro by Dorothy Wisbeski, which was one of my and my dad’s favorites when I was little. It has really beautiful illustrations including, if I recall correctly, one of Picaro splashing in the toilet.

When Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime was in power in Iraq, they almost destroyed Iraq’s marshlands in an attempt to eradicate the Marsh Arabs, a society that had lived there for millennia. The regime drained the marshes, burned villages, and destroyed livestock and crops. In addition to displacing and destroying the livelihoods of thousands and thousands of Marsh Arabs, this likely led to the extinction of the Maxwell’s subspecies of smooth-coated otter. USAID runs a program to restore and reflood Iraq’s marshes and help develop the communities around them. Learn more about the Iraq Marshlands Restoration Program here.

Consecutive days of mammals: 1
Record: 16


  1. We visited Gavin Maxwell’s beach in Scotland when we were children. But I never read the book — my mother said it was too sad.

    I think it’s a bit more famous here in the UK. One of Maxwell’s proteges was children’s TV presenter Terry Nutkins.

  2. very lovely
    I can’t really read animal stories – good or bad. because, even the good ones usually have the animals threatened in some way. I really did like RABBIT HILL though

  3. Wenni, this is such a wonderful post. I’m glad you’re focusing on Iraq mammals. The otters are lovely.

  4. This is off topic for this post, just a question? Have you ever posted a zebra? I couldn’t find one on your blog, but I just started looking.

    Your artwork is very good! I am really enjoying reading your posts.

  5. Claire, I'm glad your mother kept you from reading the book! I was really quite amazed, in researching it, by how many people were scarred by it. It seems like a great book other than that one giant tragedy, though. It must be more famous there, as I don't even have a clue who Terry Nutkins is. (If you want to talk Doctor Who, though…)

    L&J, thank you. I don't know Rabbit Hill, but of course I've cried over Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Yearling, etc. Oh, man, especially Where the Red Fern Grows; I could probably start crying just by thinking about it now.

    Sarah Bee, thank you—I’m glad you like it!

    Susan, thanks! I haven’t drawn a zebra yet, but I look forward to it. I’m trying not to draw all the really fun and/or flashy mammals too early.

  6. Clare, sorry I misspelled your name in my last comment!

  7. Hi sir, i’m realy intersted with Otter may because my root from Iraqi marshlands where hi live
    Otter killd in marshes for U$100 for him leather so we can lead campeigen to help this lovely animal
    thanks for your articls and keep in touch


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