Full of fun, grace and beauty one might describe North American River Otters who have, over the years, been restored throughout North Carolina to their former population glory. It’s a sheer pity that these gorgeous creatures nearly became extinct in the early 1900’s due to exploitation and greed surrounding the fur trade. Otters in swampy, marshes found in our coastal regions had a better chance at survival though, because food was plenty and the wetlands areas were inaccessible to hunters and trappers. Although secretive animals, sightings are reported by outdoor enthusiasts who say given the opportunity to observe otters in the wild they became awestruck and captivated by their behaviors. Most enjoyable to watch is the spirited otters’ expression of fun as they revel in sliding down mud hills into the river or skidding across snow like they are riding a skimmer board. And boy do they like to play and frolic! Reported as some of the most playful wild animals, young otters love to wrestle and chase each other, and both activities are good training for survival skills; agility, endurance and the raw power they need as an adult otter. At the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we have only experienced one admit of a river otter in many years. He was a youngster found alone and unable to fend for himself. It was important to maintain his wild side while being raised at the shelter, so important that a staff member posted a sign for everyone to see: “Do Not Speak to the Otter.” He was adorable but also wild and meant to stay wild; therefore, we were very careful in preventing our little otter from habituating with humans. He had many vocalizations, and we came to know when he was hungry and when he needed attention. Otters are very social animals, so the goal was to pack on some weight, ensure expert swimming accomplishments, teach him to hunt and ready him to colonize with other otters. The North American River Otter is a carnivore mammal that belongs to the Mustelidae family, along with weasels and minks. They look very similar to a weasel, only much, much larger, weighing up to 30 lbs and measuring nearly 4 feet in length. Otters have characteristic elongated and streamlined bodies with stout and sturdy legs. Their waterproof fur is a sleek, dense dark brown with a light tan underbelly, and their face is adorned with a cute oval and blunt snout. River Otters have a thick neck, a long furry and thick tail, extensive whiskers used for detecting vibrations indicating the proximity of prey, and their eyes and ears are found high on their head to aid in surface swimming. They can go deep in the water as well, a depth of 60 feet has been recorded, and they can stay under for up to eight minutes. Otters have that nictitating membrane that covers and protects their eyes while swimming under-water. Their feet have five toes with nonretractable claws and webbing between each toe which helps them maneuver in a variety of marine and fresh-water habitats ranging from slow moving coastal streams to rapidly running mountain streams. On land, frisky otters can leap and run almost as effectively as they swim and have been clocked as fast as 18 mph. Generally nocturnal, otters are semi-aquatic predators who feed on fish, crayfish, crabs, rodents, birds, eggs and amphibians such as frogs. Although they need to be near water, which provides most of their food source, they spend two-thirds of their time on land. They live in dens with many tunnel openings along the river bank or they may take up residence in a convenient log jam, thick cover vegetation or any natural cavity they find. Although the fun-loving otter is not known as a fighter, it will charge or scratch those who invade their feces marked territory. They communicate with each other by whistling, growling, chuckling or screaming. Their scent glands near the base of their tail also produce a form of communication by allowing them to mark scent a musky odor, fencing off their home range. Otters live in bands of 5 to 10 adults with spring breeding season pups. Otters become sexually mature within two years, although many males do not mate until they are 5 to 7 years of age, but when they do, they are promiscuous and will breed with a number of females during breeding season. Pups are born in the spring after “delayed implantation” which means the female may have been impregnated almost a year before. Three to six, fully furred pups are born weighing 4 to 6 ounces and will nurse from Mom for only three months but usually remain with her for almost a year. The male is not considered part of the family and does not help with pup rearing. It might be that “cheating” thing! All Otters must be wary of predators such as bobcats, coyotes or fox, domestic dogs, black bear, large raptors such as eagles, alligators and man (intentional or unintentional). Although, they mainly escape predation through their agility in the water, they aren’t quite as quick and maneuverable on land. North American River Otters are, themselves, important predators who help maintain a healthy, aquatic ecosystem by eating “trash” fish that compete with more economically desirable game fish, and the presence of otters generally does not affect humans in any adverse way. An otter’s life expectancy in the wild is 8 to 9 years, although in captivity, a record high of 21 years is reported. When our young otter of years ago was ready for the move from our rehabilitative intensive care in the shelter facility to the great outdoors, we moved him into the reinforced pelican enclosure (in the absence of pelicans at the time), which accommodated him with a grand pool and ground cover. His otter skills developed rapidly, and although his weight was up, he fished on his own and displayed Olympic swimmer moves, he seemed lonely and sad, so we urgently made arrangements to transport him to a rehabilitator’s home in Merrimon, NC along the river where otter presence was known. We set up his makeshift den close to the house where our volunteer, Heather, could keep an eye on his comings and goings and provide supplement food. Routinely, she watched him go to the river to eat and play, then return to his otter apartment daily, but within a few weeks, she started to see him less and less. Our theory is; he eventually found others of his own kind down the water way, and because he was so darned cute, we’re almost certain our otter has had a positive impact in helping to repopulate the North American River Otters in our coastal region. You go boy, and hope you’re still having fun!
Author of “Save Them All”
Happy Spring Everyone!!!!!!!