Five Minutes with a River Otter

River Otter walking

In January I went to a flooded agricultural field to observe ducks and cranes. At one point there was a curious underwater movement…unidentifiable. We waited, and watched. And a river otter popped out!

River otter swimming in field

 

 

We have been going to this field for three decades, have spent close to 50 hours observing wildlife on this one field. Every winter it is loaded with songbirds, ducks, cranes, raptors, waders, and more…but we have never seen an otter here.

Flooded field with ducks, January 2019. Compare this scene to the photo below from January 2014.

 

We have, however, seen the river otter hunting on a nearby river several times.

River otter with fish. December 2008

 

There are 13 species of otters on earth, and they are all aquatic in nature, feeding primarily on fish and invertebrates. In North America we have the river otter (our focus today) and the sea otter.

 

North American River Otter Wikipedia

 

They are swift in the water, but get around just fine on land too. And its not just rivers they like; they occupy streams, lakes, wetlands and apparently even flooded fields, if they’re wet enough.

 

Carnivorous, river otters not only hunt fish but also a variety of amphibians and invertebrates like frogs, salamanders, clams, mussels, snails, turtles, and crayfish.

 

They have many aquatic characteristics: long, streamlined bodies, short limbs, webbed feet, and more. They can also hold their breath a long time underwater.

 

Coveted for their thick, waterproof fur, both river and sea otters have been heavily hunted by humans for centuries. Their populations declined precipitously in the past, and some species are still in danger.

 

The North America river otter’s conservation status is currently “Least Concern.” Fortunately their population has recovered and can be found inhabiting much of North America. See range map below.

 

If you ever walk along a river and see smooth, narrow mud slides leading into the water, keep your eyes open for a river otter. With short legs and low to the ground, the sleek mammal effortlessly slips into the river.

 

Here is the same field in a drought year. Even with scant water it attracts a lot of migrating and resident winter birds.

Red-winged Blackbirds, Sandhill Cranes, Egrets. Same field, but in January 2014.

For five quiet minutes the otter glided underwater, then came out onto land. Next, the otter scratched its ear with its foot, like a dog. They do this to dry themselves, thereby keeping their fur more insulated. Walked a bit, returned to the water, paddled for awhile, then vanished.

River Otter scratching

Truly one of the day’s biggest thrills.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

I decided I otter include other otters we have observed. These below are the two biggest otters in the world.

 

The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) also lives in North America. We saw this one in the Gulf of Alaska near Seward; and always see them in Monterey and the Bay Area, along the Northern California coast. Popular for photos, playful. They are listed as endangered.

Sea Otter, Alaska

The giant otter, also endangered, is found in South America. We watched three hunting together on an oxbow lake in Peru, not far from the Amazon River. A rare find.

Giant Otter, Peru. Photo by Bill Page.

Giant Otter, Peru. Photo by Bill Page.

LontraCanadensisMap.svg

North American River Otter range map, red is river otter range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Giant Otters

Amazon Basin

We were in Peru, deep in the Amazon jungle on the Madre de Dios River, boarding a raft with hopes of finding the Giant Otters.

 

Although they are listed as endangered, there was a chance we might see them on an oxbow lake. The world’s largest freshwater carnivores, Pteronura basiliensis primarily eat fish, especially piranha; they also eat crabs, snakes, and small caiman.

Giant Otter

The raft had been specially constructed for viewing these otters. It was a flat, wooden platform built on top of two canoes. The two canoeists paddled in unison.

 

Although the otters are highly social and vocal mammals, we were asked to be quiet and still, for they are rare, and getting rarer.

We had questions. How giant are they?

 

Males are in the range of five feet long (1.5 m), not including the tail; and females are slightly smaller.

 

How rare are they?

 

Found only in South America, they have already gone extinct in some countries. Sadly, there are  only 1,000-5,000 individuals left on earth (Wikipedia). They are on the International Conservation Red List (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species). 

 

Wikipedia giant otter overview.

 

So we sat still and quiet, looking for this special otter.

 

I’ve seen both wild River Otters and Sea Otters. Adorable and quiet, they endearingly flip and spin around. In Monterey Bay, it is common to see the Sea Otters cracking open mussels on their chests, so cute.

 

So I thought I knew what to expect if we did find the Giant Otters…but I was wrong.

Howler Monkeys

There’s a constant feeling of intimidation and mystery on the Amazon. Howler monkeys woke us up that dark morning, making booming, howling sounds. I thought we were in a tornado or something.

 

The guide told us Giant Otters eat piranha. I looked around me. Caiman were gliding past us. We’re on this raft without railings, and there are piranha and caiman swimming around.

White caiman, Manu Nat’l. Park, Peru

 

Hoatzins

 

And some really big birds the size of pheasants were watching us, croaking and hissing. Hoatzins.

 

Fortunately, we found the Otters. I was initially shocked at their size. The size of a human. Five feet long, plus the tail.

Giant Otter

They were not the least bit concerned with us. We were the intruders. They were in their element, frolicking and boisterous.

Giant Otter

They would disappear under the dark water, come up with a fish and tear at it with great abandon, using their large, webbed forepaws. They were barking and snorting, and gregarious.

 

Giant Otters

Soon we quietly paddled away. I hoped they would always have this beautiful place to hunt and thrive.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Piranha. Courtesy Wikipedia.