By Elizabeth Collins
Fast, furry and fearless, the North American River Otter has come back from the brink of extinction. Once hunted relentlessly for their jacket-worthy fur, these playful creatures managed to survive in the Russian River watershed. Recently, they have also been spotted in nearby Bolinas Lagoon.
The river otter is a member of the weasel family and has a dark brown coat on its backside and light brown or gray coat on its underside. Highly adaptable and an avid swimmer, the river otter has the ability to open and close its nose and ears when going deep into the water. Its webbed feet help it move quickly underwater as well. River otters have long, sensitive whiskers used for hunting, and razor-sharp teeth for tearing into meat. Don’t let its comfort in the water fool you, though. On land, it runs faster than we do. The river otter hunches its back and stretches out in a motion that resembles that of an inchworm (only much faster). On its hind feet there are four raised bumps that grip to slick surfaces and help it move faster and easier on land.
Range and Habitat
The North American River Otter lives all over the continent. They can be found frolicking in rivers from Northern California all the way up to Canada, as well as the upper Great Lakes, New England, and states along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast.
The river otter is an opportunist, and doesn’t waste time making its own living space. Clever otters seek out pre-constructed dens left by beavers or shelters provided by the natural landscape.
Diet and Health
On the menu for our furry friends are fish, crayfish, clams, mussels, frogs, freshwater shrimp, snakes, water bugs, and sometimes larger animals, like muskrats and ducks! River otters love meat. As carnivores, they are high up in the food chain and thus run a greater risk of exposure to toxins due to bioaccumulation in their prey. A healthy otter population depends on a healthy prey population.
River otters have an average life expectancy of twenty years. During the months from January to May, mother otters give birth to two to four highly dependent kits. They emerge from her womb hairless and blind and unable to do much more than feed until they are around six weeks old.
The otter tends to be a homebody during the day. As evening approaches, it emerges from its den to play. Otters communicate through many mediums, sometimes employing sound, touch, and smell. Inter-otter communication includes chirping and marking territory with a strong, gland-produced odor.
The river otter is a great example of a “charismatic species” whose endearing looks and behavior seem designed to charm the human observer. Conservationists sometimes lament the fact that these species get extra attention when not-so-cute creatures need as much or more protection.
Nevertheless, such standout species can introduce new observers to a whole world of interrelated creatures in a watershed ecosystem. When kids learn about the river otter, they can also learn to care about the health of the species it eats, and the purity of the water on which they all rely.
In other words, they can learn to appreciate the watershed as a place and a process where the fortunes of all of these creatures come together. That’s the kind of insight we seek to build in the educational programs we provide at The Watershed Project.