Holding true to my belief that the joys of the outdoors are everywhere if only discovered by a careful observer, I have been watching a river otter in the city park across the street from where I live. The only other time I have been able to carefully watch wild otters was on an island off Sitka, Alaska. I have seen their fresh sign in Maine and Wyoming, but they are generally remarkably reclusive; hopefully you can understand my surprise and enthusiasm about seeing this otter on the edge of a New England town of about 25,000 people.
On a few subfreezing days within the past month, before the pond completely froze, I watched this otter swim, catch fish, eat fish, and leap onto ice shelves to groom and consume. I discovered where it lives and began to understand and predict where it would surface to breath based on the tiny bubbles of its exhalation paving a path to its inhalation.
River Otters, Lontra canadensis, are members of the Weasel family (Mustelidae)–a fact surprising to most people, as we picture weasels to be fierce and ornery creatures rather unlike the playful otter. However, observe the long skinny body, short legs, and hunting habits of the otter and the similarities begin to reveal themselves. Otters also do most of their efficient hunting underwater, where humans are less likely to witness their weasel-like ferocity.
River Otters can hold their breath for up to 8 minutes (though I never saw this otter disappear underwater for more than a couple minutes), and can close their ears and nostrils to streamline their underwater swimming abilities. While I stood shivering on the shore watching this particular otter move in and out of the water and on and off of ice and snow, I recalled that their close relative the Sea Otter has the densest fur in the world.
River Otters have also been prized for their fur for centuries, which removed them from parts of their natural range. While some conservation efforts have helped to increase their range again, habitat loss and pollution are significant threats to these aquatic weasels.
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