North American River Otter Pictures, Stock Photos, Images, Illustrations

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North American River Otter, Lontra canadensis, Pictures, Stock Photos, Images and Illustrations

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The North American river otter, also known as the Northern river otter, is a widely distributed mammal that inhabits waterways across North America. Once one of the most common freshwater mammals on the North American continent, its numbers have been greatly reduced due to hunting and loss of habitat. It's a popular animal in zoos, as it has a playful demeanor due to its ability to stand on its hind legs and its inclination to slide down muddy or snowy inclines as if enjoying the ride.

This semi-aquatic mammal's range extends from Alaska in the American Northwest to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico in the Southeast. They are members of the Mustelidae family, which includes badgers, weasels, and otters. They are found throughout the North American continent wherever there are suitable rivers, streams, estuaries, lakes, swamps or wetlands. Because they must stay within 100 meters of water, they avoid the arid regions of the American southwest. River otters living along the coast sometimes venture into the sea to forage, and so are not strictly freshwater mammals.

North American otters have long, slender bodies with short legs and a long, thick tail that tapers at the end. They are able to stand up on their hind legs, using their muscular tails as a kind of third leg to help them balance. Their feet have sharp claws and are webbed for swimming. Their nostrils can be closed while they swim underwater for several minutes (?), hunting for fish or other food. Prominent vibrissae (whiskers) extend from their muzzle and have an important sensory function, as they help otters feel the movement of prey in the water even when it's dark or the water is murky.

North American river otters weigh between 5 kg (11 lbs) and 14 kg (31 lbs), with males being generally larger than females. They measure from 97 cm (38 inches) to 152 cm (60 inches) including the tail, which makes up about a third of their length.


North American River Otter
Picture of North American river otter, northern river otter, or Canadian river otter, Lontra canadensis Image #: 029336

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Subphylum: Vertebrata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Suborder: Caniformia/Canoidea

Family: Mustelidae/Mustelids

Subfamily: Lutrinae

Genus: Lontra

Specific: canadensis

Species: Lontra canadensis

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The North American river otter's fur is brown to nearly black, with a lighter colored underbody and throat. The lighter shade extends to just below the ears and nose on the muzzle. Their fur has a dense undercoat, which provides warmth in cold water and northern climates. River otters have been observed spending a lot of time grooming themselves, which helps to maintain the insulating qualities of their fur.

North American river otters eat fish, amphibians, crayfish, snakes, insects, snails, shellfish, and other prey they can catch in or near the water. They use their mouths to catch food, and their paws for swimming, maneuvering, grasping and digging. River otters are generally active at night, but can be diurnal as well.

North American river otters have a high metabolic rate and so must eat a lot. They are sometimes blamed for decimating fish populations at fish farms and in rivers popular with fishermen. However, their fish diet is mostly slow-moving rough fish that are not desired by fishermen, so direct competition with fishermen is questionable.

North American river otters are somewhat solitary and do not generally travel in groups, with the exception of a mother and pups. They require a range of 60 to 80 kilometers of waterway, and they make use of it all, as they circulate through their range constantly, hunting for food. They deposit spraint (scat) and use scent glands to mark their territory, but seem nevertheless to be fairly tolerant of other otters they come in contact with. They can attain a land speed of 18 mph.

The dens of Northern river otters (called holts) are generally natural hollows, spaces under fallen trees or rocks, or sometimes the confiscated dens of other animals, such as muskrats or beavers. They line their holts with fur, grass, moss, tree bark and leaves.

They breed in March and April, but due to delayed implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus, birth does not occur until the following winter or spring. From one to six pups are born in their den, which is always located conveniently to water. Pups open their eyes after one month, begin to swim at 2 months, and are weaned at 3 months. They reach sexual maturity at 2 to 3 years of age, and live about 9 years in the wild or up to 21 years in captivity.

Historically, otters were, along with beaver, one of the animals most prized for their fur in early-American times when the European market created a huge demand for high quality pelts for the fashion industry. Native Americans and colonial hunters alike responded to the demand and reduced otter numbers throughout their historical range by extensive hunting and trapping. In 1800, the peak of the river otter hunt in America, about 65,000 river otter pelts were harvested. By 1900, river otters were virtually exterminated from 11 states and one Canadian province.

While river otter numbers were severely depleted due to over-hunting and habitat loss after the arrival of European settlers, they are now protected in many parts of North America and have been reintroduced into many areas from which they were exterminated. Twenty-one states and one Canadian province have initiated repopulation efforts. The effort has been a success, and river otters have multiplied so rapidly that controlled trapping is now permitted in areas where otters are considered a nuisance. Records show that over 7,000 river otters are harvested in the State of Louisiana annually. Despite the successful repopulation effort, river otters are still vulnerable to pollution and loss of wetlands, so people must be vigilant in protecting river otter habitats. The IUCN now lists Northern river otters as Least Concern.

Taxonomists now put North American river otters in the genus, Lontra, or New World otters. Previously, they were grouped with Old World otters in the genus Lutra. Because some sources use the old classification, North American river otters are sometimes archaically described as Lutra canadensis. Additionally, there are many presumed subspecies of North American river otter. The following list contains North American river otter names that have appeared in taxonomy databases on the Internet. The list is not presumed to be exhaustive, and subspecies names are not all necessarily scientifically accepted.

Lontra canadensis brevipilosus - Grinnell, 1914; California, Oregon
Lontra canadensis canadensis - Schreber, 1776; New England, central U.S., eastern Canada
Lontra canadensis chimo - Andersen, 1945; northern Labrador, northern Quebec
Lontra canadensis degener - Bangs, 1898; Newfoundland
Lontra canadensis evexa - Goldman, 1935; British Columbia (western slope of Rocky Mountains)
Lontra canadensis extera - Goldman, 1935; Nagai Island
Lontra canadensis interior - Swenk, 1920; upper Mississippi River Valley (Kansas, N. Dakota, Minnesota)
Lontra canadensis kodiacensis - Goldman, 1935; Kodiak Island, Afognak Island (Alaska)
Lontra canadensis lataxina - Cuvier, 1823; New Jersey to South Carolina
Lontra canadensis mira - Goldman, 1935; Alexander Archipelago (SE Alaska)
Lontra canadensis nexa - Goldman, 1935; S. Idaho, SE Oregon, NE Nevada
Lontra canadensis optiva - Goldman, 1935; Montague Island, Hinchinbrook Island, Kenai Peninsula (Alaska)
Lontra canadensis pacifica - Rhoads, 1898; Oregon, Washington, W. British Columbia, SE Alaska
Lontra canadensis periclyzomae - Elliot, 1905; Queen Charlotte Islands (British Columbia)
Lontra canadensis preblei - Goldman, 1935; Mackenzie River basin and Hudson Bay area
Lontra canadensis sonora - Rhoads, 1898; California, SE Nevada, SW New Mexico
Lontra canadensis texensis - Goldman, 1935; lower Mississippi River Valley (Louisiana, Texas)
Lontra canadensis vaga - Bangs, 1898; Florida, S. Georgia
Lontra canadensis vancouverensis - Goldman, 1935; Vancouver Island, San Juan Island
Lontra canadensis yukonensis - Goldman, 1935; Bering Sea coast, Yukon

Alternate names: Northern river otter, North American otter, North American river otter, Canadian river otter, Loutre du Canada, Nutria de Canada, Nutria Norteamericana

© Northern river otter information assembled from on-line sources by Kevin Miller on May 6, 2008 for ttp://