By Bennett Moseley, Wildlife Biologist
Imagine enjoying an afternoon at your favorite fishing hole when you catch a glimpse of an unidentified animal swimming on the other side. Care to make a guess? Many of us would probably guess a beaver, alligator, or possibly a river otter. It makes sense because these are the animals we are used to observing in aquatic environments. However, if you were to observe an unidentified animal traveling through the woods near your favorite fishing hole, you would probably be inclined to guess a host of other animals totally unrelated to aquatic environments. You might be surprised to learn that some aquatic animals, such as river otters, regularly utilize land routes between bodies of water and are often mistaken for animals more commonly observed on land. Otters generally utilize the shortest land routes possible and often create frequently traveled trails between feeding areas. They move on land with a loping or bounding motion, using their long toes for gripping the ground and enabling them to travel quite swiftly overland. Otters are nocturnal. Therefore, they are not frequently seen by humans. However, they may be observed during early morning or late afternoon making their overland treks.
River otters have brown to gray fur. Their bodies are long and slender with small heads and wide snouts. They have black noses and white whiskers. Adult males may measure up to 3 feet from head to rump with tails up to 18 inches in length. Males may weigh up to 30 pounds. Females are usually smaller than males.
Fish are the otter’s predominant food. They are known to eat sunfish, shad, and carp, but will feed on whatever species is most abundant and easiest to catch. They are powerful swimmers and catch their food by chasing it into shallow water utilizing their strong front feet to retrieve prey. Crayfish and frogs are also eaten if available.
River otters live alone most of the year. They generally breed from January to April. The average litter consists of two to four pups that are cared for by the female. It does not appear that the males assist in raising the young at all. Otters tend to raise their young in abandoned beaver dens because they are unable to dig their own burrows. Wetlands created by beaver dams are excellent habitat for otters.
Although river otters are aquatic carnivores and are most often observed swimming in bodies of water ranging from pools to rivers, they also will cut across land if it’s more convenient. The next time you observe an unidentified animal bounding through the forest, don’t be so quick to deduce that it is probably a dog, “long-tailed cat,” or some other land-dwelling creature. It very well could be an otter. There really are otters in the woods!