American River Otter
The American river otter is a graceful and beautiful addition to many North Carolina rivers. Sighting one can be an exciting occasion for boaters, fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts because of the creature’s secretive nature and relative rarity in some waters. The animal slides down mud and snow seemingly for the sheer delight of it. Otters are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. There are seven recognized subspecies of the American river otter.
- Eats fish out of ponds, including goldfish and coy ponds
History and Status
River otters were once one of the most widely distributed mammals in the United States and Canada. However, as early as the 1500s, European settlers began trapping otters and exporting their pelts as part of the fur trade. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, otters had disappeared from much of their historic range. The decline was caused by over-trapping, but in the 20th century especially, wetland drainage and water pollution added to the pressures on otters. Populations in the coastal region survived, perhaps because of the the abundance of food and the inaccessibility of large swamps to hunters and trappers. By the late 1930s, however, otters had become virtually extinct in western North Carolina.
In order to restore the river otter to its former range, the N.C. Wild life Resources Commission released 49 river otters in the western part of the state from 1990-1995. River otters were also released in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Due to these restoration efforts, the otter population is now fully restored in North Carolina and considered abundant
throughout the state. Because the United States signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1977, states must monitor the populations of river otters.
The river otter, along with weasels, mink and several other species, belongs to the family Mustelidae. Characterized by an elongated body with short sturdy legs, the otter is much larger than other mustelids and is adapted for a more aquatic habitat. It has a sleek body with a short blunt snout, a thick neck, and a thick tail that is flattened on the top and tapers to a point. The small eyes and ears are located high on the head for surface swimming and the whiskers are highly sensitive to aid in the capture of prey in murky water or on dark nights. Otters’ nearsightedness may be an adaptation to improve underwater vision. The otter’s feet have five toes with non retractable claws and webbing between each toe. The heel pads on the hind feet are adapted to provide better traction on slippery surfaces.
The waterproof fur is short and dense. It is generally dark brown with light brown coloring under the neck, chest and stomach. Otters are excellent swimmers and are able to swim forward or backward. They often tread water to look and listen to their surroundings.
Habitat and Habits
Otters are aquatic predators. They can live in a variety of marine and fresh-water habitats ranging from warm, slow-moving coastal streams and marshes to cold and rapidly moving mountain streams. Otters feed primarily on fish and crayfish, but also consume crabs, amphibians and a variety of other aquatic prey species. Dens are often bank burrows vacated by other animals, but may also be located in log jams, natural cavities, or thick vegetation. Otters are active year-round and are generally nocturnal, but may occasionally be seen in daylight hours, especially in undisturbed areas. Bands consisting of 5 to 10 adult otters are occasionally observed, and two or more otters have been known to hunt cooperatively by herding fish.
River otters are abundant throughout North Carolina and can be harvested during the open trapping season. River otters are considered an important fur bearer species; their pelts are highly valued. River otters are important predators; they can reduce undesirable fish populations that compete for food with cold-water game fish.
Due to their curious nature and their nearsightedness, it is not uncommon for otters to approach a boat or a person on shore. Because the otter’s primary diet includes fish and crayfish, they can cause damage at commercial crayfish, fish, and bait fish operations.
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