About Otters




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The ancestors of otters probably lived on land. Over millions of years, they adapted to life in the water. The two main kinds of otters are river otters and sea otters. They are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

The American river otter is found throughout most of North and South America. Sea Otters live along the Pacific coast of North America, the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, and northeastern Asia.

Otters are mammals. They are covered with fur and nurse their young with milk. They Breathe oxygen from the air. Otters are related to Skunks, mink, weasels, martens, and badgers.

Otters belong to the weasel family - Mustelidae. The scientific name for the American river otter is Lutra Canadensis. The sea otter is Enhydra Lutris.

River Otters

River otters live near rivers and lakes. They spend much of their time swimming. Otters feed on fish and small animals such as crayfish. They can crush shells and slice fish with their strong sharp teeth. They also eat snakes, clams, snails, frogs, and even earthworms.

River otters have a small, flattened head, long whiskers, and a thick neck. They have a powerful, tapered tail that makes up one-third of their length.

Adult male river otters weigh 4.5 to 14 Kilograms. They measure up to 1.4 meters long, including the tail. Females are somewhat smaller. Otters can hold their breath and stay under water for up to four minutes.

River otters have good eyesight and a very keen sense of smell. They make many different sounds. They chatter, chuckle, grunt, snort, and growl. They also warn other otters of danger with a shrill whistle.

Legs, Feet, and Ears

Otters have short legs with five toes on each foot. Elastic skin called webbing between the toes helps them swim. Except for pads on their toes and soles, their feet are covered with fur. They use their paws to feel for crayfish under rocks in muddy riverbeds. They hold food in their front paws while they eat it. Special muscles allow otters to close their small ears and nostrils to keep water out.

Otter Fur

The fur on the river otter's sides and back is a rich black-brown color. The fur on the belly is lighter, and the chin and throat are grayish. Coarse guard hairs cover their thick, soft under-fur.

River otters take good care of their beautiful fur. They groom their coats every day.  They roll on the ground to dry their fur and keep it waterproof. Their fur protects them from the cold.

River Otter Territories

River otters mark their territory by rubbing musk on logs and stones. Musk is a sweet smelling liquid produced by scent glands near the tail. Otters have dens, or homes, on land, in the banks of rivers and ponds. Sometimes they take over an abandoned muskrat or beaver den dug into a riverbank.

Otters are nocturnal animals. They are active at night and usually sleep in the daytime.

When they are not hunting for food or grooming their beautiful fur, otters love to run around. They wrestle and chase each other. Otters like to slide down a slippery slope into a pond or stream. Then they race up the slope so that they can slide down again.

River Otter Pups

Otters must be at least two years old to mate. The mating season usually comes at the end of winter. Two months later up to four pups, or cubs, are born. The pups' eyes are closed for five weeks. They have no teeth. They feed on their mothers milk. The mother otter takes care of their pups for almost a year. When she takes out of the den, the father may join his family. The parents teach their pups to swim, dive, catch food, groom their fur, and slide down slopes.


For hundreds of years, river otters were killed for their thick, beautiful fur. It was used to make coats, hats, and other articles of clothing. Today many governments have laws against otter hunting. But humans are still one of the worst enemies. Many of these wonderful animals are killed by cars when they cross roads at night.

Otter Leaders' Handbook






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.