Cape clawless otter


A lesser seen mammal on the beaches and estuaries of the Garden Route is the Cape clawless otter Aonyx capensis. They are just fantastic creatures, growing to between 12-18 kg and 110-160 cm in length (roughly a third of which is the tail), though males tend to be larger than the females. Each foot has five digits, and as the name suggests these are clawless, though middle three hindfeet digits do in fact have a rudimentary nail which are used for grooming. Hindfeet are partially webbed, while the front feet are not. Cape clawless otters have a thick fur coat, which ranges from dark brown on top, with creamy off-white facial markings extending down along the throat and chest. Their heads are large and flat, and their tails are dorsoventrally flattened, large, stout and long. Cape clawless otters have a wide distribution, and are also known as African clawless otters, a name which suits their distribution more accurately. Cape clawless otters are predominantly aquatic and are seldom found far from water, while they do occur in marine environments access to freshwater is essential. On a number of walks on various beaches I have seen otter spoor (so distinct with long, splayed fingers and rounded tips), though the actual animal has been more elusive, but keep your eyes peeled! Cape clawless otters are active during early morning and late afternoon, but may hunt at any time. They eat primarily crabs, as well as frogs and fish, and will occasionally take molluscs, small mammals, birds and insects. Cape clawless otters can and will hunt by sight, but a large portion of their prey items are found by feeling with their fingers. Unfortunately these incredible creatures are faced with a myriad of threats such as habitat loss or degradation, degraded water systems due to alien invasive species, agricultural practices, and poor sanitation, as well as pressure on the otter prey base. They are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN.

Written by: Minke Witteveen

For further reading:

  • Jacques, H., Reed-Smith, J. and Somers, M.J. 2015. Aonyx capensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008. Accessed: 2016-11-21. URL:
  • Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. 2001. Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa. Pp. 128. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.

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