The River Otter (Lontra canadensis) is perhaps best known as the most playful member of the weasel family. If you have not had the good fortune of seeing otters in the wild, I am sure that many of you have enjoyed them in zoos or have seen videos of otters sliding down icy chutes in the winter or laying around on their backs pawing with their legs in the air or engaging in other appealing antics. I was fortunate to be able to photograph one of these fascinating mustelids at Kamloops on Valentines Day, 2019.
River otters are one of the larger weasels varying in length from 90 – 135 cm and weighing anywhere from 7 – 14 kg depending upon age and gender. Males tend to be somewhat larger than females. As you might expect, they have a number of adaptations that allow them to successfully exploit the aquatic environments where they spend most of their time. Their oil rich fur successfully repels water and their extra layers of fat help to insulate against cold water, especially in the winter. They can dive underwater for up to 4 minutes and can even shut down blood supply to certain parts of their body in order to provide more oxygen to the lungs. All of their toes are webbed, but it is mainly the tail and hind feet that are used for propulsion.
They spend their lives in lakes, ponds or along rivers and streams but also occur in saltwater along our coast where they might be mistaken for the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris). Although fish such as suckers, sculpins and other relatively slow-moving species make up the bulk of their diet, they are also known to feed on trout, insect larvae, crayfish, clams, snails, frogs, toads, turtles and even waterfowl at times. Rarely, they might attack beavers or muskrats.
Their home ranges are quite large but vary considerably depending upon the quality and quantity of local food supplies. Daily movements are commonly 2-3 km but this can extend up to several tens of km in some areas. Breeding typically occurs from February through April, with fertilized eggs held for up to 10-12 months in a condition of delayed implantation before final implantation in the uterus and maturation begins. The gestation period is 2 months with young being born from March through April in the year following the initial fertilization. Two to three young are common but litters can be up to five. Juveniles begin to disperse at about 12-13 months of age and have been known to move up to 200 km from their birth place.
Much as I have thought that cuddling these furry creatures would be a treat, I know that I would no doubt suffer some nasty bites if I was able to get close enough to try. Keep your eyes out for the ever attractive and distinctive river otters along the North and South Thompson rivers around Kamloops. They have been seen near Riverside Park, at Tranquille, along the river at Westsyde and numerous other places I am sure. With all of the ice we are experiencing at the moment, check any areas of open water for their heads moving along the surface and watch for dark shapes resting on the ice or engaging in playful antics close to the water. Spend some time watching with binoculars and I am sure you will come away delighted.