Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
March 11, 2000 - Issue 05

by Paul Barry

River Otter - Lutra Canadensis

The River Otter, most people simply call this animal an otter, is a very special and fascinating creature. The otter is well known as an animal that seems to make fun for itself. Those of us lucky enough to have seen otters in the wild, or at zoos, may have seen them sliding down mud banks or snow slopes. They are great swimmers and divers. They often catch fish to eat by chasing and catching them in the water.

Many Native American traditions give the otter a special place in their stories. The Dakota people use the word ptan as the name for the otter. More interesting, however, is this ... in the sacred language (the language used by spiritual leaders), the otter is known as hepan, the same word used to describe the second child, if male. In Tlingit tradition, otters represent those people who have lost their lives at sea.
Many Native American people use the hide of this beautiful animal to make beautiful articles of clothing ... hats, capes, armbands ... to name a few. The fur is wonderfully soft and thick, perfect for keeping an animal that spends most of its life in water warm and dry.

Our image of the otter as a playful, social animal that enjoys sliding down mud banks and snow slopes is not completely true. Young otters do this, apparently for fun, but adults slide and push themselves along snow and ice as a rapid mode of travel, but rarely slide downhill repeatedly in play. The streamlined body that works so well as a toboggan is most efficient in the pursuit of fish.

The River Otter used to live in most of North America but today, they are mainly found in the northern areas. There are many reasons for this ... hunting and trapping did eliminate otters from some of their range, but, perhaps, the most important reason is loss of habitat. Otters need lots of clean water and some space. The pollution levels in some of our rivers and lakes is one of several reasons why otters no longer live in some of these places.
The most aquatic member of the weasel family, the otter is well suited for its life in and around water. Its long streamlined body and tapered tail is perfect for swimming. Its small eyes and ears are located high on the head, allowing it to remain low in the water. The ears and transparent eyelids close when the otter submerges.

The otter swims underwater using repeated kicks of its webbed, rear feet and a serpentine swimming action. It can travel hundreds of yards underwater and remain underwater for up to four minutes at a time. In clear waters during daytime, it uses its vision to locate fish; in murky or nighttime waters, its stiff sensitive whiskers help to locate and capture prey.
Rough knobs on the otter's rear heel pads give it good traction on ice. While short legs help to create a streamlined shape, they result in the characteristic hump-backed gait on land.

River otter weights vary between twelve and thirty-three pounds (five and fifteen kilograms), with males weighing more than females.
When temperatures rise and the snow begins to melt in spring, a pregnant otter moves to a small pond away from the main waterways and begins to search for a den. Otters do not dig their own dens. They use abandoned beaver bank dens or lodges, the burrows of other animals, or natural cavities.

Otters usually give birth to two or three babies. Otter babies are called pups. These silky black pups weigh about five ounces at birth. They grow rapidly but do not emerge from the natal den until they are six to eight weeks old.

Shortly after the females give birth, otters enter their breeding period . Like most members of the weasel family, female otters undergo a process known as delayed implantation. This means that the embryos lie dormant in the uterus for several months and do not begin to develop until the following winter.
Otters are more social than other members of the weasel family. A mother and her young form the core of the family group which sometimes includes the father. Bachelor groups of males and other combinations of sex and age groups may also occur. Such flexibility probably allows otters to exploit habitats with seasonal concentrations of foods like spawning fish.

The otter is something of a picky eater. They like fish. Fish are seized in their hiding places or caught in direct pursuit. The otter is very good at chasing and catching fish underwater. It also searches river bottoms for aquatic and freshwater mussels. They also occasionally eat ducks, young beaver, marsh birds, muskrats, voles and shrews.

By October, young otters are able to survive on their own but usually remain with the family through the winter. Just before the birth of a new litter, the pups move away, in search of their own hunting and foraging areas.

As winter approaches, otters that have lived in shallower lakes, ponds and streams during the summer may move to the larger bodies of water. Otters are active all winter, fishing under the ice and popping up for air in the gap between water and ice, and in open water areas. They frequently travel long distances under ice shelves and overland between open water areas. During severe weather, they may take shelter for a few days in natural cavities among tree roots and log jams.
Otters are not abundant and are seldom seen, in the wild, by the casual observer. Canoeists paddling remote waterways, with interconnected marshes, meandering streams, and small lakes are most likely to see this amphibious mammal. Keep your eyes and ears open.

In winter, good viewing opportunities will exist near open water areas.

Many zoos have otter exhibits that allow you to see this wonderful animal in something like his natural home. Perhaps you will see the otter swimming gracefully underwater. Maybe there will be young otters playing. Either way, this is a truly beautiful animal.

Here are two pictures you can print and color.

Basking Otter

Diving Otter

The River Otter

You are a newly born river otter growing up in the wetlands. Can you survive? It is best to play this game after visiting the River Otters within our virtual wetlands
River Otter Games

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