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River Otter

She’s bright-eyed, bewhiskered and curious. But you’d better look fast when you visit the river otter in Waters of the World. This slinky, spirited creature will zip into her river habitat before you can say “Boo!”

Like children in the park, North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) are playful—tobogganing down slippery slopes, chasing or wrestling one another, or rolling shells around in their paws like marbles. They can also chirp, chatter, whistle and chuckle. Though amusing to us, these physical behaviors hone their reflexes, and the vocalizations serve as communication.

Found in the United States and Canada, river otters are well adapted to both water and land. Their long, sleek bodies, powerful legs with webbed feet, and brawny, tapered tails give them the speed and dexterity of an Olympic swimmer. Two layers of thick, course hair keep them cozy in cold water. And their pulse dramatically decelerates to conserve oxygen while diving for fishes and crustaceans. (They eat birds, reptiles and insects too.) At the same time, river otters can run on all fours up to 18 mph. Musky scent markings convey territory, gender, defense and other messages.

Heavy trapping in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, habitat loss and pollution have diminished river otter numbers throughout North America. They were nearly extinct in Illinois when they were added to the state’s endangered list in 1989. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, however, restored areas along the Illinois, Kankakee and Wabash Rivers allowed otters to be reintroduced. With help from Illinois taxpayers, through the Wildlife Preservation Fund on the state’s 1040 form, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources successfully reestablished populations in wetland areas. The frisky critters did the rest, and otter populations had increased enough by 2004 that they were removed entirely from the state’s threatened and endangered list. Today river otters are found in every Illinois county.


Check out photos, videos and stories of Shedd's otters.

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