North American River Otter

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North Amer River Otter

© Julie Katt, John Ball Zoo


The threatened North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) is well known for its playful antics and is frequently observed playing in mudslides, beaver dams, and with "toys" such as rocks and twigs.  River otters dive deep into rivers and are able to squeeze their nostrils and ears closed tight to keep out water.

The greatest threat affecting river otters is human-related and includes their being hunted for their fur.  Although otters once inhabited most of the major waterways of North America, they are now found almost exclusively in Canada, Alaska, California, and along the East Coast.  By the mid-1900’s, hunting had reduced the North American river otter range by 75%, and their current population size is unknown.

The AZA Small Carnivore Taxon Advisory Group and the North American River Otter Species Survival Plan Program manage more than 250 otters at 100 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.  AZA biologists track river otters, survey potential release spots, and reintroduce them in the wild to increase their population size.  Researchers use radio collars to track these animals so that they can monitor their health and breeding success. Conservation and education programs support additional river otter populations in South America by teaching otter care and conservation techniques to zoo keepers in South American zoos.

River Otter Facts

Status Threatened
Size River otters have a slim body that can be up to 51 inches long.  Their tail alone can add another 21 inches!
Appearance River otter fur is sleek brown-black. They have a whiskered muzzle and webbed feet (like a duck!) to help them swim.
Habitat They live in inland waterways, ponds, and lakes.
Diet Otters mainly eat fish, but also crustaceans, invertebrates, birds, and rodents.
Breeding Otters mate in late winter and have 2-4 pups per litter.  Babies are blind and helpless, so they must stay in the den for at least one month after birth.