Welcome to Wingtrip’s Natural History Lexicon, a regular rundown of natural history terms, however varied and at random. To find future and past posts on this subject, simply search “natural history lexicon” or find it in the tags. Thanks for reading!
-The droppings of an otter.
You smell it first. The aroma congears as viscous coating in the back of the throat and you want to be anywhere else, but in this fog of digested marine life squeezed out onto the dock. Then you see the dark wet plops of crushed shells and fish bones and want nothing more than to turn tail and never take in this horror of the senses again. But the spraint won’t disappear on its own and chances are it might build into a great festering dunghill of a midden if you don’t deal with it.
As you can guess, the scant times I’ve found myself cleaning up the leavings of a River Otter haven’t been pleasant. While them and their ilk, the mustelids, are far and away my favorite group of mammals I don’t wonder at why they are so openly despised. Among many traits, adept hunters (eating your chickens), sly intelligence (getting into your chicken fortress), fearlessness (confronting you in a confined space if you find them in your chicken fortress), playfulness (Ok, that’s just cute), they are so named for being musty, smelly creatures.
The word “scat” is actually how I can to the word “spraint,” because indeed a part of this lexicon is finding new vocabulary for myself as well, however criptic or fallen from use they may be. I had never heard this term before. Scat is a term typically used to describe a carnivores’ leavings, which being more heterogeneous than an herbivore and tend to be more scattered. Spraint, according to the Oxford Dictionary, comes from the Old French word espreintes, to squeeze out, with roots in the Latin exprimere, to express. When you find yourself enveloped in the fog of a fresh spraint (which in my neck of the woods always smells of concentrated, exhumed rotten fish), it does look as if it has been squeezed out of that brown sock of a weasel cavorting in the water nearby. When I see their heads poking from the water, little paws holding some mangled form while they gnash their teeth about it, I can practically smell the expression of a meal not yet digested.
To avoid being accused of being juvenile or banner waving for the cause of potty humor, I should mention there are reason to want to know about spraints. Their presence is very useful in places where otter populations have declined which is unfortunately in many places, particularly in Western Europe. As with many mammal species their “signs” are easier to find than the animal itself and can help demonstrate presence or absence. Equally so their stench sheds light on their membership in the family Mustelidae. With a well developed anal scent gland, used for territorial and sexual signaling, which all but one member have (the Sea Otter, having little use for scents that would quickly dilute in the ocean), it makes sense spraint would smell bad, they’re a form of signaling. When you are trying to make your presence known, there’s no need to be inoffensive in your aroma.
People think poop is gross and I agree. But I’d be lying if said I’d never poked at a spraint with a stick to see what was in it.