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"LUTRA CANADENSIS"
RIVER OTTER
By Mary Henzi

Here at Lake in the Clouds, we are sometimes fortunate enough to see another species whose zoological name is the same as our town name; the river otter or Lutra Canadensis.    I have not seen them often, but they are around.  When you have seen a river otter at play in our lake, it is a treat you will never forget.  As you may know, otters are noted for their playful behavior and each time I have witnessed their presence, there were at least 3 of them and the water was in a boil with their high energy tumbling and rolling.  Scientists believe that the degree of playfulness displayed in a species has a high correlation with their degree of intelligence, so it is thought that our graceful river otters are very intelligent animals.

Sighting otters in our lakes is a much rarer experience than seeing beavers.  That is because there are so few otters living in the wilds of the Poconos.  In 1999, there were only 500 otters living in the entire Pocono mountain range and those were the only otters in the entire state of Pennsylvania.  Since that time, there has been an effort to restore the otter to all the river habitats of this state.  Since they have a range of at least 18 miles, we are not likely to see them often, but the fact that they choose to hunt and play in our lakes is a testimony to the excellence of our water quality as the otter is extremely sensitive to adverse environmental conditions.

Otters eat crayfish, snakes, clams, frogs, salamanders, snails, turtles, earthworms, mostly slow moving junk fish (a recent study showed that 70% of the contents of an otter’s stomach were fish but only 5% were trout), small mammals and birds.  In turn, baby otters (or kits) are eaten by eagles, coyotes, bobcats, bears, and domestic dogs.  Adult otters are noted ferocious fighters and are mostly only threatened by man.  Since PA has a small otter population, it has been protected from trapping since 1952 (its thick luxurious pelt is highly valued and has led to its near extinction).  Pollution and habitat loss have also contributed to the demise of the species.

Otters are members of the weasel family and look like a weasel except they have valves on their noses and ears that make it possible to close them when they are under water.  Because they have relatively poor eyesight, they have highly sensitive whiskers which feel the presence of prey, especially in murky water.  Adults are 35 - 50 inches long including a thick 12 to 20 inch tail and weigh 12 to 20 pounds.  They have webbed feet which help make them efficient swimmers but they are also fast on land.  They can run at speeds of up to 18 miles per hour.

Otters are opportunistic when seeking out lodging for giving birth and raising kits.  They don’t build lodges as beavers do.  In fact they may take up residence in an abandoned beaver or muskrat lodge, a hole in a riverbank, an opening in a stack of logs or an empty woodchuck hole.  Two to three kits are born between February and April and although fully furred, their eyes are closed and they are totally helpless until they open their eyes at five weeks.  They begin hunting for food with their mothers and learn to swim at 10 to 11 weeks.  They leave home in the fall or stay until the following spring when the next litter is born.  Otters tend to be loners (fathers do not contribute in any way to the rearing of the kits) and when we see a group of otters playing together, it very well could be a mother and her kits.

Fortunately for us and the otter, their numbers are increasing in Pennsylvania.  If you are on the lake or just gazing out over the surface, keep alert.  You may be lucky enough to see the water churned into turmoil.  Take a closer look, as it could be our lovable, intelligent and graceful friends, the otters, giving our lake their blessing as a healthy place to feed and play.