J. David Solf -
Otter Research Pioneer

  J Scott Shannon

In 1989, I was gathering references in preparation for writing my thesis about the Trinidad otters.

Most past research on coastal river otters had been done in Alaska. I was already familiar with three masters theses on the behavior and ecology of coastal otters there, and in their findings, I found statements that suggested to me that the otters these researchers were studying might have a similar social organization to the otters at Trinidad. Nothing really definitive, however, because their studies used radio telemetry and scat analysis, rather than being direct observational studies like mine, so their findings with regard to social organization were only inferential.

Each of these three theses, though, made at least one reference to a 1972 paper by "J. D. Solf" in which this author had apparently described some characteristics of otter social groupings. The paper was not a journal article, however, so I couldn't obtain it through HSU's interlibrary loan service.

At that point I called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to see if they could send me this paper. Initially I was told it was no longer available, but a secretary at the DFG's magazine Alaska Fish & Game found an old copy of it in her files which she sent to me.

At first glance, I was quite disappointed with this "paper." It wasn't a scientific publication at all; rather, it appeared to be simply the kind of informational pamphlet that you'd find at a park visitors center or a rangers station.

As I read it, though, I quickly changed my mind. This was not the typical re-hash of encyclopedia-type common knowledge that you'd expect in a pamphlet written for laypeople. Some of the things the author was describing made it clear to me that J. D. Solf must have actually observed real otters in the wild at some point.

Then I came to the section on "social habits." As I read through it, my heart practically stopped. What Solf wrote was, in essence, a description of the same type of male social group that I was observing at Trinidad! Quoting:

"Male groups usually consist of fewer than 10 individuals. Larger numbers that are occasionally seen together may represent a temporary association of neighboring groups. The groups have no apparent leader. They travel together and operate as a social unit but do not cooperate in hunting or share what is caught. Travel is over a wide area and apparently there are no exclusive territories. Fighting among them is extremely rare although they are wary of strange individuals."
I was dumbstruck. These were entirely new findings. No statement like this had ever been published before; nothing even close. I realized then that I was not the first person to document large, gregarious assemblages of male river otters, after all - Solf was - but that didn't bother me at all. Quite the contrary what was important here was that Solf's observations explicitly corroborated my own findings! Someone else somewhere else had seen exactly what I've been seeing, and that affirmation filled me with a sense of genuine exhilaration. My male group was not merely a local artifact. Right then and there, I knew I must get in touch with J.D. Solf as soon as possible and talk to him in depth about his observations.

So I wrote back to Alaska Fish & Game, asking how I could contact Solf. I was quite dismayed by the reply. I was told that J. David Solf had died in January 1974. That was bad news, indeed. Saddened but not dissuaded, I determined to try to get in touch with people who had known Solf, and perhaps even contact his family, to try and find out more about him and his work.


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Text Copyright © 2007-2023 by J Scott Shannon, Photograph Courtesy of Bettijane Solf Boltmann. All Rights Reserved. Contact: