2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Mammals

North American River Otters
North American River Otters
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Subfamily: Lutrinae


The aquatic (sometimes marine) carnivorous mammals known as otters form part of the large and diverse family Mustelidae, which also includes weasels, polecats, badgers, and others. With 13 species in 7 genera, otters have an almost worldwide distribution.

English-speakers may use the collective noun romp to refer to a group of otters ( a Google search as of 2 November 2006 lists 210 occurrences of the phrase "romp of otters", but the OED does not appear to record this usage).

Physical characteristics

Otters have a dense layer (1,000 hairs/mm², 650,000 hairs per sq. in) of very soft underfur which, protected by their outer layer of long guard hairs, keeps them dry under water and traps a layer of air to keep them warm.

All otters have long, slim, streamlined bodies of extraordinary grace and flexibility, and short limbs; in most cases they have webbed paws. Most have sharp claws to grasp prey, but the short-clawed otter of southern Asia has only vestigial claws, and two closely-related species of African otter have no claws at all: these species live in the often muddy rivers of Africa and Asia and locate their prey by touch.


Most otters have fish as the primary item in their diet, supplemented by frogs, crayfish and crabs; some have become expert at opening shellfish, and others will take any available small mammals or birds. The faeces of an otter is referred to as scat. To survive in the cold waters where many otters live, they do not depend on their specialised fur alone: they have very high metabolic rates and burn up energy at a profligate pace: Eurasian otters, for example, must eat 15% of their body-weight a day; sea otters, 20 to 25%, depending on the temperature. This prey-dependence leaves otters very vulnerable to prey depletion. In water as warm as 10°C an otter needs to catch 100 g of fish per hour: less than that and it cannot survive. Most species hunt for 3 to 5 hours a day, nursing mothers up to 8 hours a day.


Northern River Otter

The northern river otter (Lontra canadensis) became one of the major animals hunted and trapped for fur in North America after European contact. As one of the most playful, curious, and active species of otter, they have become a popular exhibit in zoos and aquaria, but unwelcome on agricultural land because they alter river banks for access, sliding, and defense. River otters eat a variety of fish and shellfish, as well as small land mammals and birds. They grow to 1 m (3 to 4 feet) in length and weigh from 5 to 15 kg (10 to 30 pounds). Once found all over North America, they have become rare or extinct in most places, although flourishing in some locations.

Some jurisdictions have made otters a protected species in some areas, and some places have otter sanctuaries. These sanctuaries help ill and injured otters to recover.

An otter in Olympic National Park.
An otter in Olympic National Park.

Sea Otter

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) live along the Pacific coast of North America. Their historic range included shallow waters of the Bering Strait and Kamchatka, and as far south as Japan. Sea otters have some 200,000 hairs per square cm of skin, a rich fur for which humans hunted them almost to extinction. By the time the 1911 Fur Seal Treaty gave them protection, so few sea otters remained that the fur trade had become unprofitable.

Sea otters eat shellfish and other invertebrates (especially clams, abalone, and sea urchins ), and one can frequently observe them using rocks as crude tools to smash open shells. They grow to 1 to 2 m (2.5 to 6 feet) in length and weigh 30 kg (25 to 60 pounds). Although once near extinction, they have begun to spread again, starting from the California coast.

Unlike most marine mammals ( seals, for example, or whales), sea otters do not have a layer of insulating blubber. As with other species of otter, they rely on air-pockets trapped in their fur.

Maxwell's Otter

Zoologists believe that a sub-species of otter Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli (named 'Maxwell's Otter' after the British naturalist Gavin Maxwell and the subject of his book Ring of Bright Water) lived in the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial salt marsh of Iraq. Some have suggested that this sub-species may have become extinct as a result of the large-scale drainage that has taken place in the region since the 1960s.

European Otter

European otter
European otter

Otters also inhabit Europe. In the United Kingdom they occurred commonly as recently as the 1950s, but have now become rare due to the former use of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides and as a result of habitat-loss. Population levels attained a low point in the 1980s, but with the aid of a number of initiatives, by 1999 estimated numbers indicated a recovery to under 1000 animals. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan envisages the re-introduction of otters by 2010 to all the UK rivers and coastal areas that they inhabited in 1960. Roadkill deaths have become one of the significant threats to the success of their re-introduction.

Giant Otter

The Giant Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) inhabits South America, especially the Amazon river basin, but is becoming increasingly rare due to poaching, habitat loss, and the use of mercury and other toxins in illegal alluvial gold mining. This gregarious animal gets up to six feet / 1.83m long. See Giant otter.

Otters in mythology

Norse mythology tells of the dwarf Ótr habitually taking the form of an otter. (Note that the Old Icelandic word otr means "otter"; these and cognate words in other Indo-European languages ultimately stem from a root which apparently also gave rise to the English words "water", "wet" and "winter".)

In some Native American cultures, otters are considered totem animals. The time of year associated with this is also associated with the aquarius zodiac house, which is traditionally observed January 20th-February 18th.

According to Jamie Sams and David Carson, authors of Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Animals Through the Ways of Animals the medicine held by Otter is a set of lessons in a female energy. This applies to both men and women, as all of us have female sides. The Otter's hide is very often used to make medicine bags for powerful women because it represents balanced female energy. Otter is very caring of its young and will play for hours, performing all types of acrobatics. It lives on land, but always has its home near water. The elements of Earth and Water are the female elements. At home in both of these elements, Otter i the personification of feminity: long, sleek, and graceful, Otter is the true coquette of the animal world. Otter is always on the move and is very curious. Unlike other animals, Otter will not start a fight unless it is attacked first. This joyful litter creature is advertursome and assmes that all other creatures are friendly - until proven otherwise. These character traits are the beauty of a balanced female side, the side of ourselves that creates a space for others to enter our lives without preconceptions or suspicions. Otter teaches us that balanced female energy is not jealous or catty. It is sisterhood, content to enjoy and share the good fortune of others. Anchored in the understanding that all accomplishments are worthwhile for the whole tribe, Otter people express joy for others. Long ago, in tribal law, if a woman were wideowed, her sister would offer her own husband to the widow as a lover to keep her from drying up and not using her creative urges. This is Otter medicine, too. Envy, or the fear of being replaced, has no space in Otter's balanced understanding of sharing goodness. Woman energy without games or control is a beautiful experience. It is the freenes of love without jealousy. It is the joy of loving other people's children and their accomplishments as much as you love your own. IT may be time to examine your feelings about sharing the bounty of your life with others. Otter may be saying that the finer qualities of woman need to be striven for in both men and women so that a unity of spirit can be achieved. This would involve the destruction of jealousy and of all the acts of anger which stem from that fear. It would mean keeping a Hawk-eye on your ego and maintaining total trust. It would mean a would full of people coming together to honour the right of each person to be.

Otters in literature

Non-fiction: Gavin Maxwell's stories of his life in a remote part of northern Scotland and of the otters he encountered there:

  • Ring of Bright Water
  • The Rocks Remain


  • Otters appear very commonly in Brian Jacques's Redwall series.
  • Henry Williamson's story Tarka the Otter
  • Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows
  • M. I. McAllister's The Mistmantle Chronicles
  • Thornton Burgess's " Little Joe Otter"
  • Otters were a frequent obsession of the surreal comedy Dare To Believe.
  • Otter-like creatures called fenlings appear in David Eddings's series of books The Belgariad.

List of species

Genus Lutra

  • European Otter (Lutra lutra)
  • Hairy-nosed Otter (Lutra sumatrana)

Genus Hydrictis

  • Speckle-throated Otter (Hydrictis maculicollis)

Genus Lutrogale

  • Smooth-coated Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata)

Genus Lontra

  • Northern River Otter (Lontra canadensis)
  • Southern River Otter (Lontra provocax)
  • Long-tailed Otter (Lontra longicaudis)
  • Marine Otter (Lontra felina)

Genus Pteronura

  • Giant Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis)

Genus Aonyx

  • African Clawless Otter (Aonyx capensis)
  • Congo Clawless Otter (Aonyx congicus)

Genus Amblonyx

  • Oriental Small-clawed Otter (Amblonyx cinereus)

Genus Enhydra

  • Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris)


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