Wild Life / northern river otter

gray days be gone

Hi, friends — welcome to week #10 of my newsletter about animal encounters. You can always reply directly, or add your stories to the website. This week, the sleek and playful river otter (Lontra canadensis). — AJP

The light is coming back at the edges of day—a little more in the morning, a little more in the afternoon. It is noticeable now, and a relief. The midwinter skies, however, remain bleak and gray. On the ground everything is brittle. There is no soft snow to ease the tension, no places for small creatures to hide. The grass crunches underfoot, the earth heaves small icicles, the leaves of the rhododendron curl into themselves. Anyone of us could snap at any moment. We’ve been in this loop for so long.

And yet. The seasons push and pull in small steps. A couple of years ago, on a heavy winter day, I saw a river otter leap out of a frozen pond. I had never seen a river otter before. It literally hopped onto the ice from nowhere. At one moment the world felt dark in icy shades of taupe and gray. In the next, the world was a river otter. It shook its head and bounced around, glossy and alive, obviously in its element.

It’s a real treat to see a river otter in the wild. They are generally shy of people and active at night. In winter they make more daytime appearances, so they may in fact hop out of the water when you need them most.

River otters are sleek swimmers and can stay underwater for up to four minutes. They are carnivores in the weasel family and ambush their prey, preferring fish, but also frogs, snakes, and other small creatures. They have large home ranges of around 40 miles and will travel from one body of water to another, loping over the ground as needed.

They are social creatures and young otters love to play. They will sled on snow and ice, chase each other, and dive for rocks if given the chance. River otters will often stick together in small family groups.

Mating happens from December to April but, through a rather incredible reproductive strategy called embryonic diapause, the mother doesn’t give birth until the following spring, nearly a year later. Pups are born quite helpless and their mother protects and nurtures them, teaching them to swim and hunt. They will usually stay with her for about a year.

River otters are fairly stable in the waterways where they live now, in the northern regions of the continent and along the coasts (though extirpated—or locally extinct—in many areas where they used to range). River otters are a good sign of a healthy ecosystem. They are susceptible to habitat destruction and water pollution, so their fate going forward is largely in our hands.

In the gray midwinter, there is comfort in knowing that river otters are out and about, even if we can’t see them. There is comfort in seeing the daylight stretch, even by seconds. The smallest glimpse of new light, of life in its element, of play and forward motion means so much right now, for so many reasons.

River otter links

  • Let’s be honest, the river otter may be the very cutest animal out there. The Oregon Zoo has this quick video of a pup (please wait for it to squeak), and this one about Tilly the rescue pup. Tilly, all grown up, teaches her own pup to swim.

  • Watch them play on the ice, watch them eat, watch them run through the snow—at Yellowstone [via Smithsonian]

  • This video is an OTTER BONANZA (thank you to Anne J. for sending!): the Bishan smooth-coated otters defeat Marina rivals again in Kallang Basin clash, in Singapore [Straits Times/YouTube]. More about how these otters are adapting to urban life at National Geographic and an older article at the BBC. They have their own FaceBook group, too, with more recent sightings.

  • Does everyone know Emmet Otter’s Jug Band by Jim Henson? If not, please enjoy their Barbeque performance here.

Animal encounters in recent comments


  • Next week I’ll be looking at the gray wolf, in honor of the Full Wolf Moon on January 28 (because I love the named moons).

  • My otter drawings are for sale; please reply if you’re interested. A portion of the proceeds will go to The River Otter Ecology Project.

  • Please share with friends and family who need a river otter (who doesn’t?). Thank you!