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Otter, North American River

North American River Otter Photo by Tad Motoyama

Scientific Name: Lontra canadensis

North American river otters are energetic, semi-aquatic mammals. Due to a high rate of metabolism, otters exhibit high levels of energy and love to play. They reside in dens built along banked shores. These dens contain an underwater entrance tunnel that leads to a nest cushioned by moss, grass, bark and leaves.

A Little Work and a Lot of Play

North American river otters have playful, sociable personalities. They love sliding down icy or muddy slopes, especially when their routes land them in the water. These otters also display curiosity; they approach new visitors with their noses held high in suspicion.

North American river otters exist in small groups usually consisting of unrelated males or a mother and her cubs. Males and females only associate with each other during mating season, which is December through April. Sometimes two females will coexist and raise their cubs together.  Sliding on slippery slopes and splashing around in the water are common games mothers play with their young. These activities actually help cubs develop survival skills and increase sociability.

North American river otters are listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Rivers, streams, lakes and swamps in Canada, Alaska and northern areas of the United States are the primary habitats of North American river otters. Although environmental temperature is of low concern to these otters, they must live near a consistent water source.

North American river otters eat mostly fish, crayfish and amphibians. Occasionally, these carnivores will consume small mammals and birds.

The features of North American river otters allow them to succeed both on land and in the water. Their short, powerful legs help them paddle in the water and gallop on land. They have broad, webbed feet with fixed claws. They weigh 10-33 pounds and their long, slender bodies measure 26-30 inches long. Their strong, tapered tails are 12-20 inches long and steer the otters as they swim through the water or slide down hills. North American river otters have rounded faces with myriad sturdy whiskers and eyes located close together. They rely on their sensory perception and excellent vision (both above and below water) to locate prey. Ears and nostrils are both small and can close underwater. The fur of North American river otters is thick and water-resistant to enhance insulation. Their solid, dark brown coats are sleek and highly valued on the black market. The large nose is the most prominent characteristic that distinguishes the North American river otter from other otters. In the wild, North American river otters live approximately 8.5 years.

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