Lontra canadensis Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
These semi-aquatic, slender, long-bodied mammals are specialized for finding and capturing prey in the water. The broad flattened head has numerous stiff whiskers around the nose and snout, and these very sensitive tactile hairs are used for locating prey underwater. Otters have a long muscular tail, short stout legs and thick oiled fur. Small rounded ears and nostrils close when the otter is underwater. In Florida, river otters weigh 5-14 kg (11-31 lb). Males are larger than females.
River otters forage alone or in pairs. They are active during the day and at night, hunting in streams, rivers and ponds for fish, crayfish and turtles. Otters have a high metabolic rate, an adaptation for living in an aquatic environment where body heat is rapidly lost. They need to eat 15% of their body weight a day.
Although otters always remain in or near the water, they spend their inactive time in burrows dug into riverbanks or at other rest sites on land. Dens are located in shelters dug by other animals or natural hollows.
Otters are very vocal and have a large repertoire of calls. If you are canoeing on a quiet river or stream, their bird-like chirping contact calls will often be your first indication that otters are nearby.
They breed once a year and in Florida mating occurs in fall and winter.
Though the embryos actually develop for about 8 weeks, gestation can last for 11 to 12 months because of the extended period of delayed implantation. Litters usually consist of 2-3 young, which are born fully furred. The young open their eyes after a month and are weaned at three months. They travel and feed with their mother until they are about a year old.
River otters are the most commonly encountered of Florida’s mustelids; they are found throughout the state except the Keys. It is not uncommon to see an otter if you are canoeing or kayaking in one of central Florida’s springs or rivers.
Because they move over large areas, otters often have to cross roads and are frequently seen as road kills. Road-killed otters often show up on US 441 and US 301 south of Gainesville, killed as they try to cross between the major wetland areas.
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