North American River Otter

North American River Otter


Canada and the United States, including Alaska


Found in streams, lakes, reservoirs, wetlands and along marine coasts that have vegetation or rock piles along the banks.


The features of North American river otters allow them to succeed both on land and in the water. They have short, powerful legs that help them to paddle in the water and gallop on land. The back feet are broad and webbed with fixed claws. They have long, slender bodies with strong, tapered tails that may be 12-20 inches long. Their tails are an important adaptation. They help to steer the otters as they swim through the water or slide down hills. Their faces are rounded with sturdy whiskers to aide in finding food. Their eyes located close together and have a third clear eyelid or nictitating membrane that helps protect their eye as they swim.

They rely on their senses, especially their excellent vision (both above and below water) to locate prey. Ears and nostrils are both small and can close underwater. River otter fur is thick and water-resistant and keeps them warm. Their solid, dark brown coats are sleek and highly valued. Oil glands in their skin helps to waterproof their fur to keep them dry in the water. Their nose is large and helps distinguish the North American river otter from other otters.

North American River Otter

River otters are at home in the water and on land. River otters are members of the mustelidae or weasel family and hunt at night. They make their home in dens near the water's edge. When swimming, otters leave a trail of bubbles of air that was trapped between their two layers of fur. These two layers of fur provide excellent insulation, make the otters resistant to cold, and help to keep their skin dry.

North American river otters communicate in a variety of ways. They vocalize with whistles, growls, chuckles, and screams. They also scent mark using paired scent glands near the base of their tails or by urinating/defecating on vegetation within their home range. These glands produce a very strong, musky odor. They also use touch and communicate through posture and other body signals.

North American river otters have playful, sociable personalities. They love sliding down icy or muddy slopes, especially when their routes land them in the water. These otters also display curiosity; they approach new visitors with their noses held high in suspicion.

North American river otters exist in small groups usually consisting of unrelated males or a mother and her cubs. If resources are plentiful, the species can form larger groups as well. Sliding on slippery slopes and splashing around in the water are common games mothers play with their young. These activities help cubs develop survival skills and increase sociability.


Males and females come together to breed in late winter or early spring. Males often breed with several females, probably those whose home ranges overlap with their own.

The gestation lasts two months, but the young may be born up to a year after mating because these otters exhibit delayed implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus. Kits are born between November and May. Females give birth to from one to six kits per litter, with an average of two to three, in a den near the water.

The kits are born with fur, but are blind at birth and otherwise helpless. They open their eyes at one month of age and are weaned at about 3 months old. Kits first take to the water when they are two months old, and are natural swimmers. Between six months and a year of age they will leave their birth range. Otters reach sexual maturity between two to three years of age.

Interesting Facts:

• North American river otters can dive to depths of 60 feet.

• They remain active in winter, using ice holes to surface and breathe.

• They can hold their breath underwater for up to eight minutes.

About Our Animals:

The Zoo currently houses three river otters.

  • Nellie (female): born 1997, received at Hogle Zoo 2012
  • Nessie (female): born 2011, received at Hogle Zoo 2015
  • Howard (male): born March 11, 2016, received at Hogle Zoo 2017
North American River Otter

North American river otters have been hunted for many years for their fur. Trapping and water pollution removed otters through many parts of their range, especially around heavily populated areas in the mid-western and eastern United States. Their populations have stabilized in recent years and reintroduction and conservation efforts have resulted in recolonization of areas where they were previously removed. Utah is one of the states where river otters have been released back into their former native habitats.

American river otters are important parts of healthy, aquatic ecosystems. Finding river otters along a stream or river is a sign of clean water. Otters rely on water that will support fish and other prey. You can help otters by keeping trash and chemicals out of water ways. Those behaviors will not only help otters but also people by keeping the water we drink and use clean!

Did YOU Know?    
The North American river otter is one of several species of river otter. Other relatives include sea otters and giant otters.
North American River Otter
Native Utah Animal
Class: mammals
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Genus: Lontra
Species: canadensis
Length: Males measure up to 3.7 feet; Females up to 3 feet.
Weight: They weigh between 11-30 pounds.
Average Lifespan: Eight to nine years in the wild; as long as 21 years in captivity.
Wild Diet: Primarily eat fish, but will also eat crustaceans, snails, insects, birds, shellfish, frogs, rodents, turtles and aquatic invertebrates.
Zoo Diet: Fish and carnivore meat.
Predators: Preyed upon by bobcats, coyotes, birds of prey, alligators, and other large predators.

This is an ssp animal

CITES Status: Appendix II (threatened)
Where at the Zoo? Rocky Shores

Learn more about mammals or animals from North America!
Or, cross-reference the two!