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The river otter is an amphibious mammal known for its grace and playful nature. Its streamlined, sinuous body and long flattened tail helps propel the otter agilely through the clear waters of North America. The otter’s strong swimming skills come in handy when playing in the water or while in pursuit of a meal - be it fish, mollusk or other small invertebrates. Its vibrissae, or sensory hairs, on its snout senses water turbulence to help locate prey.
Though wary of strangers, the river otter can be sociable and easily domesticated. Incredibly playful, otters can be seen wrestling, chasing each other around and even sliding down slick or snow-covered riverbanks. No hibernating months for these little guys; otters are active year round thanks to a layer of fat right underneath the skin and think fun to protect then in the coldest of waters and winters.
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The river otter’s fur consists of two layers - a coarse, waterproof outer coat and a softer, finer layer that keeps the animal warm. When in the water air bubbles cling to the outer hairs, covering the otter in what appears to be a silvery sheen. Unfortunately for the otter, man has taken great interest in its luxurious-looking fur and hunts the otter for pelts. The popularity of otter fur outerwear has contributed to the dramatic decrease of river otters for the past 200 years. Yet hunting isn't the only cause for the river otter's demise.
Historically, river otters were found in great numbers in the waterways and coastal areas throughout Canada and the United States. Sadly habitat loss, water pollution and the fur trade have greatly reduced the otter population. River otters have been virtually eliminated in many parts of their original range. Heavily populated areas in the Midwest, East Coast and the Southeast United States have been greatly affected. However successful reintroduction efforts are slowly restoring otter populations in many of these states. Lucky for us, Indiana is one of them.
River Otters Reintroduced
River otters once thrived in Indiana until habitat destruction, pollution and unregulated trapping dramatically affected the population over time. According to the Department of Natural Resources’ Fish and Wildlife Service, breeding populations disappeared throughout the state by 1942 and was added to our state-endangered species list in 1994. In order to keep the otter in our waters, the state agency implemented the River Otter Reintroduction Program with hopes of reestablishing river otter populations in at least six of our watersheds.
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Between 1995 and 1999, more than 300 river otters from Louisiana were transplanted into Muscatatuck, Patoka, south-central Ohio, St. Joseph, Tippecanoe and Upper Wabash with incredible results. According to DNR's 2009 Wildlife Diversity Report, river otters were sighted in 71 of 92 Indiana counties with most occurring in 31 counties with or near release sites.
The overwhelming success of the reintroduction efforts resulted in the river otter's removal from Indiana’s endangered species list in 2005. However the otter continues to be a species of special concern. Otters are protected from both intentional and accidental trapping during the fur harvest season. It is illegal to take or possess the pelts of otters or of any other protected species. If an otter is accidentally trapped or found dead, it is to be reported to the DNR as the information helps keep track of the status and distribution of otters throughout Indiana.
Interesting Facts about the River Otter
- Otters are part of the weasel family which includes minks, skunks and badgers.
- Although happy to play, river otters are solitary animals. Males do not associate with females until mating season. Only then will you see pairs chasing, diving and cork-screwing through the water as a sort of mating ritual.
- The otter loves to swim and can hold its breath for up to 8 minutes. Its eyes are even adapted for underwater vision, leaving them nearsighted when out of water. On land, otters rely on their sense of smell, hearing and touch to get around.
- Rivers otters are land-bound most of the time; its tail gives it balance and can run as fast as 18 mph.
- When at play or way to get around, otters are often seen sliding down riverbanks on their stomachs.
- River otters are territorial and will mark their territory with feces (or spraint) as a warning to others. Though not a fighter, it will charge and scratch those who get to close.
River Otter Quick facts
- Scientific name: Lutra canadensis
- Weight: 11-30 lbs.
- Length: 35 - 50 inches
- Habitat: riparian - living or located near a body of water
- Diet: primarily consumes fish, mollusks & other invertebrate
- Reproduction: once yearly with an average litter of 2-3 and up to 6
- Predators: includes the bobcat, coyote and birds of prey; man
- Lifespan: average of 9 years in the wild, possibly up to 20 years