Prairie Ridge Ecostation

River Otter

River Otter, Lontra canadensis

We were recently treated to a very special sight: a River Otter swimming in the pond!  While they are certainly not something you’re likely to see every day, River Otters (Lontra canadensis) have been spotted on the grounds on several occasions and are always a welcome sight at Prairie Ridge.

River otters

River Otters are semi-aquatic mammals found primarily in the northern, far eastern, and northwestern US and across large regions of Canada.  They are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae) and share some characteristics with other members of the group, especially their long, narrow bodies and short legs.  River Otters reach lengths of 42 inches, about one-third of which consists of their long, thick tails.  Their heads are broad and flat in front and topped with small, rounded ears.  River Otters also have thick, muscular necks that are about as broad as their heads.

River Otters are designed for life in water.  Though their legs are short, they are strong.  Combined with its webbed feet, a River Otter can easily propel itself through water with its short limbs.  While underwater, the Otter can close its ears and nostrils to prevent water from entering them.  The fur is also well suited to aquatic life.  The thick coat of River Otters not only provides protection and insulation while on land, but the fur repels water and helps keep Otters warm and dry even while submerged. They are often seen drying themselves by rolling around on grass or logs to squeeze the water from their fur.

The diet of River Otters also reflects their aquatic lifestyle.  River Otters typically prefer fish, and fish will make up the bulk of their diet when abundantly available.  However, crayfish also make up a significant part of their diet and they will eat frogs and other amphibians, turtles, aquatic insects, and fruits as well.

River Otters used to be much more common in North America than they are now.  Part of their decline is due to hunting: Otter fur is soft, warm, and water-repellent, and the animals have historically been hunted by fur trappers to sell the pelts.  River Otters are also susceptible to habitat loss and environmental pollution, both increasingly common in North American freshwater systems.  Reintroduction programs have helped repopulate River Otters throughout their historic range and to boost the overall population.  These efforts are the reason River Otters are currently found throughout North Carolina.

Next time you visit Prairie Ridge, keep an eye out for a River Otter!  The most recent sighting occurred in the pond, but Otters occasionally visit the stream as well and have been spotted moving between the two habitats.  If you do spot an Otter, it is well worth taking a moment to watch it!  Otters are well-known for their playful behaviors and superb swimming abilities, so they are fun animals to watch.  What a treat to see one right here in the middle of the Triangle!

Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photo by Chris Goforth