Wild Woman: River Otters

A century ago, otters were nearly eliminated in Arkansas because of unregulated harvest, habitat loss and the demise of the beaver. Otters are playful, and people enjoy watching their antics.  Generally active at night, river otters often sun themselves on rocks or riverbanks during the day.

What do they look like? River otters are well suited to life in the water. They have streamlined bodies, webbed feet and long, tapered tails. They weigh 10-30 pounds. Their ears and nose close when they go underwater. Dense, oily fur and heavy layers of body fat insulate them in the water. The have an acute sense of smell, and prominent facial whiskers, which are extremely sensitive to touch. Otters are dark brown with pale brown or gray bellies. The muzzle and throat are silvery. Males and females look alike, although males are larger. They are graceful, powerful swimmers and can remain submerged for 3 to 4 minutes. On land, they travel with a loping gate (look like a slinky on the move). On snow or ice, they alternate loping with sliding.

Where are they found in AR? River otter occur in all counties of the state, but are most common in the southern and eastern parts of Arkansas. However, otter are common in most river drainages in the Ozark and Ouachita regions. River otters live in streams, rivers and lakes usually bordered by forest. Burrows may be under large tree roots, beneath rocky ledges, under fallen trees, or below thickets. The burrows are usually former homes of muskrats, beavers or woodchucks.

What do they eat? Crayfish make up a large portion of an otter’s diet for most of the year, but during winter they feed almost exclusively on fish. Other foods include mussels, frogs, turtles, aquatic insects and other small animals. Otters use their whiskers to feel around underwater and find food.

Life cycle: Otters are mostly nocturnal and active all year. Social and generally living in family groups—they communicate with a variety of squeals, chirps, chatters, chuckles, screams, and warning growls. Otters also communicate through scent at latrine sites. They regularly visit these sites to deposit droppings and secretions from their musk glands (they are related to the skunk). Females whelp two to five young, usually in February or March. The young are weaned at 4 months of age but stay with their mother until the following spring.

Kirsten Bartlow
Watchable Wildlife Coordinator
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

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