Faces of Wetlands: River Otter

Image: Dawn Tanner

The North American river otter is a charismatic mammal found from the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska to even the Twin Cities. They’re named for their fondness of rivers, yet they’re also at home in lakes, wetlands, and estuaries (where a river meets the sea). What makes this crowd favorite so widespread, and why have they been spotted here in our watershed?

Of the world’s river otters, the North American is the largest, growing up to 5’ from nose to tail and weighing up to 31 lbs. Their slender bodies and webbed feet give them agility and skill in the water, and their flexibility allows them to groom almost every inch of their fur. With non-retractable claws, relatively short legs, and pads beneath their paws, they’re also quite comfortable on land. River otters use their tail for quick propulsion, steering, and balancing when standing upright. A scent gland at the base of the tail helps otters communicate, as they post announcements and alerts on rocks and logs.

They key to the river otter’s wide range across the continent is having adaptable food sources. Fish are their favorite food, but they’ll also dine on amphibians, turtles, mussels, and crayfish with their razor sharp teeth. Similar to humans, an otter’s prime real estate is a cozy spot at the edge of open water. But instead of a driveway, otter dens feature tunnels for coming and going. While humans come and go during the day, otters favor the night hours. While humans appreciate dry, flat transportation, otters fancy a belly slide on an icy or muddy slope.

An otter’s dream home is known as a riparian zone, which is a mix of wetland and forest (or other upland) habitat surrounding a lake or river. These zones are important for the aquatic ecosystem, as they’re a dynamic space with lots of interactions between soil, plants, water, and animals. All this action can either boost or hinder the health of humans and otters alike. Wetlands in particular offer natural water filtration, habitat, and flood storage. Healthy wetlands support otter populations, as otters are known to be sensitive to disturbance, pollution, and declines in water quality.

Our observation of otters over the ages have made them rich with folklore. Celtic and Indian cultures refer to otters as a ‘water dog’, and consider them as playful, helpful creatures. Anglo-Saxons refered to them as a ‘water snake’, alluding to their sleek swimming movements and the glossy appearance of their wet fur. Because of this movement, sightings of the legendary Nessie are thought to be an otter family perusing single file in the waters of Loch Ness (Otter families are known as a ‘romp’). In Scottish lore, otters are called the dratsie. Seven black dratsie accompanied the ‘Otter Kings’ of old, their skin thought to render a warrior invincible, and their furs providing protection against drowning. In the Northern Seas of England, otters were said to warm and dry the feet of St. Cuthbert, the patron Saint of Otters. Whatever the historic or cultural lens, otters have been surrounded by human admiration for centuries.

What would modern otter folklore look like? Perhaps it’s an inspiration for play, because even from a scientific lens, play is an unavoidable trait of the otter. Or perhaps they’re a symbol for wildlife and water, navigating the epic journey of living with humans and their changing, complicated world. As society faces new challenges natural resource management, public health, and climate change, our (big picture) survival relates largely to our ability to harmonize our systems with the natural world. As 2020 shows, protecting and managing natural resources can be messy, inconvenient, or even politically charged. But perhaps the otter offers another approach. Perhaps research, policy meetings, and tough decisions are enhanced by an element of play. Perhaps the cheery character of the otter is our guide to learn from each other, ask thoughtful questions, and grow in our communication skills, staying agile in the present moment.

Long ago before the pandemic my weekly routine included lap swimming and weights before diving into the office. A passing photo of an otter on my (non-work-from-home) desktop ignited my imagination. For a moment I’m the sly water snake, fearless and playful in the dark depths of Vadnais Lake! The next moment, I’m St. Cuthbert with otters warming my feet, I’m an invincible Otter King of olde, my ergonomic office chair transforms into a wooden rocker by a glowing stone hearth.

As the moment passed, my daydream was nudged awake by the steady humdrum of calendar notifications. Yet a new approach to the latest dilemma has revealed itself, and I struggle to recall what seemed so stressful just a few moments ago. If the stress does sneak back in, there’s always the option of a few belly slides outside during lunch.

Join us in with helping otters by practicing water-friendly lawn care, smart salting, adopting a stormdrain at adopt-a-drain.org, or pursuing best practices such as raingardens, native plantings, alternative turf, bee lawns, or shoreline restorations. How-to’s, watershed history, downloads, and local ditch and wetland information can be found at VLAWMO.org/residents.


Nick Voss

VLAWMO Education and Outreach


Trees for Life

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