River Otters Frolic Through the Day

If you've had the blues lately or just need an attitude adjustment, you might want to try to track down a river otter. Watching these playful animals, whether outdoors or in a zoo, you can't help but begin to feel the joy they seem to have for life. Everything they do looks like a game. And as Marty Stouffer of "Wild America" once said, "If it isn't fun, an otter just won't do it."

The river otter (Lutra canadensis) is actually in the weasel family, a group of mammals known as mustelids which also includes badgers, skunks and mink. Many mustelid mammals are very elusive and rarely seen. River otters, however, are active and playful by day, and, if not disturbed by people, are often seen playing in small family groups. The river otter has many weasel-like features including a long, sleek, muscular body, long flattened tail, short legs and webbed feet. Otters are the largest of Maryland's fur-bearers and vary in length from three feet to nearly five feet, head to tail. They can weigh from 12 to 35 pounds.

The river otter has dark brown fur, with a paler underbelly and grayish throat. Small, close-set eyes near the top of the head allow them to see when the rest of its body is submerged. Ears are small and rounded and, like their nostrils, have valves to shut out water. Prominent, white-tinged whiskers allow the otter to sense prey in the water. The otter's long rudder-like tail is thick at the base and tapers to a point. Feet are webbed. An oily coat and a layer of fat allow the otter to tolerate icy water temperatures.

In North America, river otters can be found in most of Alaska and Canada, along the East Coast south to Florida, and west to northern Utah. They are also found along the West Coast through most of California.

Prior to the 1800s, otters were found throughout Maryland but were extirpated from Garrett and Allegany counties and western Washington County. In the early 1990s, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reintroduced the species to the region. As a result, river otters are now distributed statewide. The highest populations occur in the coastal plain close to the Chesapeake Bay and decrease as one moves west in the state.

Like mink, river otters are semi-aquatic and are comfortable on land and in the water. You'll find them in and around healthy bodies of water including rivers, wooded streamside (riparian) areas and tidal marshes. It's no wonder that fish make up most of their diet, but they also feed on crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, reptiles and other small animals.

Well-adapted to life in the water, river otters swim rapidly on the surface or underwater moving either forward or backward. They can remain submerged for several minutes, swim up to a quarter mile underwater, and dive to 55 feet. Due to their aquatic skills, the otter has few natural predators. Young otters may be taken by foxes or raptors, but most otter mortality, when not due to natural causes, is caused by human activities.

River otters are just as comfortable on land. They can run as fast as 15 to l8 m.p.h. If you get an opportunity to see an otter on land, chances are it will be frolicking. Otters love to run and slide, gliding as much as 25 feet on ice or mud and tumbling into a snowdrift or splashing into the water.

Mud, ice or snow slides are the best known evidences of otters. Haul-outs are other clues. These are trails coming out of the water that contain parts of shellfish and droppings. Also, look for otter trails which are about eight inches wide and may show only heel pad and claws. An otter track shows its toes fanned widely but doesn't show its webbing.

This endearing animal seems to love everything it does, whether playing with a pebble, belly-sliding in the snow or hunting fish. We can learn a lesson from watching them as they frolic through life, and that is to try and find joy in all that we do.

After 10 years as a biologist, Kathy Reshetiloff now writes on a variety of topics for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.


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