Thursday, May 23, 2013

Otters of the Americas

Most scientists today accept that there are thirteen extant (still living, opposite of extinct) otters in the world.  Of these, five are native only to the Americas, while one, the sea otter, lives in both the Old World and the New World!  In this post, though, we are going to be only looking at the New World otters, the otters of the Americas!  Let's start up north and work our way downwards!

If we're starting up north, then that would mean that our first otter of the day is the North American river otter!  The diet of the river otter is primarily composed of slow moving, bottom feeding fish, but will eat many other different animals given the opportunity!  Reports of river otters catching and eating snowshoe hare have been recorded, as well!

When my friend Masaki Kleinkopf, my father and I were able to go on a behind the scenes tour at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo with my grandparents, one of the keepers at the grizzly bear enclosure told us a very interesting and funny story!  A few years ago, the four river otters had managed to create a hole in their enclosure large enough for them to squeeze through, and some of them escaped.  One of the river otters was never found, and to this day is still probably roaming the mountainside (unless it got eaten).  If I remember correctly, another one of the otters was captured a few weeks later farther down the mountain, swimming around.  The final two otters were much easier to capture, however, and this is the funny part of the story!  If I remember correctly, the zookeepers figured out that the otters were missing because they went up and visited the nearby grizzly bear enclosure.  Instead of being greeted with the typical blue pond loaded with fish, they were met with a vision of a bloodbath: the waters were red with blood, and there were fish parts everywhere!  And there, on the side of the pond, were two fat and happy otters!

In other river otter news, one was recently captured on a camera trap in Boulder, Colorado, the first such sighting in the area for around 100 years!  Click HERE to be directed to an article to learn more!

Next up, we have the sea otter, the heaviest mustelid, and the only other otter native to North America!  Sea otters also have the thickest fur of any mammal, with around an astonishing ONE MILLION HAIRS PER SQUARE INCH!  Now THAT'S a lot of hairs!  This unfortunately has attracted many, many poachers over the years, and sea otter populations the world over took a serious tumble.  However, in recent years, they have recovered to around two thirds their historical numbers, making it one of the most successful marine conservation movements ever!  The sea otter will also hold hands with other sea otters to avoid floating away from each other, and sometime will form what scientists call "rafts" of around 2,000 individuals!  Click HERE to learn more about the hand holding and the rafts!

Let's take this trip south of the Equator to Mexico, Central, and South America!  The next otter is the neotropical otter and, as you can see by the range map below, is native to all three of those places!  A solitary animal, not a great deal is known about its behavior and habits.

Next up is the second largest mustelid in the world (after the sea otter, of course), the aptly named giant otter!  Although much longer than the sea otter, the giant otter is much more slim.  It is, however, the longest mustelid, growing to lengths of about five and a half feet!  Unlike most mustelids, the giant otter is a fairly social animal, living in groups generally numbering between around four and thirteen individuals, usually composed of one pair of breeding individuals and their offspring from one or more generations.

One of the most interesting things that I have learned about the giant otter is entirely and categorically false: according to one TV show (I am pretty sure it was Survivorman), the giant otter is a threat to people.  I can't remember the exact quote, but in one episode in which he was in the Amazon, he says something along the lines of "I definitely have to watch out for jaguars and insects here, but I've also been told to watch out for the highly aggressive giant otter."  Which is total crap.  The giant otter is often regarded as a nuisance to indigenous peoples, but nowhere have I been able to find anyone saying that they can be dangerous to humans!  I don't recommend that show.

The second to last otter of the Americas is the marine otter.  Much of the marine otter's time is spent out of water, and it rarely, if ever, ventures into rivers or estuaries.  The marine otter is the second smallest otter (the only smaller otter being the Asian small-clawed otter), and, like the neotropical otter, not a lot is known about it.

Finally, we have the southern river otter, another otter about which not a great deal is know.  Although called a river otter, the southern river otter spends a great deal of time in both fresh and salt water.  Some people believe the southern river otter simply to be a sub-species of the North American river otter.

This was the birthday post of Julie Neher! Happy birthday, Julie! Want to see some cute (or ugly) baby animals featured here on your birthday? Well, if you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at with the date and your favorite animal, and I will do my best to get a post in! And if you like what you are reading, please feel free to follow us here or via Facebook!

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