Otters are nature’s show-off creatures

DON CAMERON @Saltwirenetwork Don Cameron is a registered professional forester



SaltWire Network

Truro News

If you grew up in central Nova Scotia, you may have enjoyable memories of visiting the playful otters at the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park. My most outstanding memory of the Wildlife Park is watching the pair of otters seemingly “showing off” for all the two-legged humans who were watching the activity through the glass window of their pool area. Always moving, the two otters seemed to love to play; swimming from side-to-side in the pool, around in circles, climbing up on the pool deck and then diving back into the water, often chasing each other. They also were quite curious and would often look at the strange-looking faces watching them through the window. A few weeks ago while in the woods, my wife heard what sounded like an animal running, followed by a splash. She was unable to see any evidence of what caused the sound, and we wondered about it. On the way home, we spotted three otters running across the dirt road from the direction of a small brook. It was my first time seeing them in the wild, and it was quite a thrill as they sprinted across with their unusual long, lanky body with the raised hump-like back. We believe it was likely the otters that made the sound my wife had heard earlier. How the otter has evolved to be able to thrive in Canadian winters is remarkable. North American river otters, also known as Canadian otters, have long, muscular, streamlined bodies with short legs and fully webbed feet bearing nonretractable claws. Their small heads widen to long necks and shoulders, and they have flattened, well-muscled tails. These otters have brown-to-gray fur, and their undersides are a lighter, silvery shade. Their dense, short under-fur is overlain by darker, coarse guard hairs that help repel water. The river otter's eyes and ears are located high on its head for surface swimming. A third eyelid, or nictitating membrane, protects the eye and allows the otter to see when swimming underwater. The otter's ears and nostrils close underwater. River otters have long, stiff and highly sensitive facial whiskers that aid in locating and capturing prey. The otters typically capture prey in their mouths but occasionally use their thumbs and forepaws to grasp and manipulate prey. Like other carnivores, their teeth are well adapted for grinding and crushing. The tail is highly muscular and comprises up to 40 per cent of the otter's total body length. With the tail's strong, undulating movement, a river otter propels itself through the water as fast as 13 km per hour and can easily dive to 11 m or more. River otters use their powerful hind feet to help with propulsion and their small, dexterous front feet for paddling through the water. Adult river otters weigh 4.5 to 15 kg and are about 75 to 150 cm in length. Females are generally one-third the size of males. River otters are found throughout most of North America from the Rio Grande to Canada and Alaska, except in arid deserts and the treeless Arctic. They live in riparian zones, often in the same areas as beavers. Their aquatic habitats can be both marine and freshwater; streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and marshes. Otters prefer unpolluted water with minimal human disturbance. An extremely adaptable animal, otters tolerate hot and cold climates, as well as high elevations and lowland coastal waters. River otters are known to be rambunctious, aquatic, streamlined mammals that spend much of their time in the water, seemingly enjoying themselves immensely. They can remain underwater for as long as four minutes. They have rough patches on their hind feet that allows them better traction on slippery surfaces. They often leave characteristic trails in mud or snow where they slide down slopes on their belly to move more quickly. River otters are hydrodynamic members of the mustelid or weasel family. This group includes skunks, weasels, minks, martens and fishers. They are voracious predators. They feed on fish, insects, crabs, snakes, frogs, voles, shrews and even muskrats. Because they are so fast in and out of water, they have few predators, unless they are caught by larger carnivores on land. Besides the river otter, there is also a much larger sea otter. When one has the opportunity to spot an otter in the wild, it is a rare pleasure to be enjoyed.