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LBL Wildlife Report: River Otters, The "Giant Aquatic Weasel"

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The North American river otter is a member of the weasel family, making it more closely related to a mink than a beaver.

In the next installment of Sounds Good's Land Between the Lakes Wildlife Report, Tracy Ross and Woodlands Nature Station lead naturalist John Pollpeter discuss the North American river otter, including the common misconception that otters and beavers are closely related.

To begin, Pollpeter addresses the misconception that beavers and weasels are related. "They share the same type of habitat—a riparian or riverbank habitat. The beaver is larger and can get up to 80 pounds. It's the largest rodent you're going to find here in North America, whereas the otter can be about five feet long, weighs about 30 pounds, and is a member of the weasel family. It's actually a giant aquatic weasel."

"They look like minks, martens, and other members of the weasel family. They're long and skinny, they've got the tail, and they have webbed feet. Their teeth are different. Their teeth are for fish-eating, so they're very sharp, very pointed when compared to the beavers' buck teeth that they used to chop down trees."

Pollpeter says that it's often easier to spot river otters in the wild during the winter months when vegetation along the banks is more sparse. "It's a little easier to come across the signs that these otters leave," he explains. "Otters like to slide on their bellies. You might see otter slides along the bank. You might see some scent mounds where they've marked their territory. They're very territorial critters."

"Typically, otters are going to be active at all times of the year during dawn and dusk. Docks are a good place. Anywhere where you're going to find lots of fish," Pollpeter says. "When you do find a location—say a bridge, lake access boat ramp, or something—look for half-eaten fish, poop that kind of looks like raccoon poop but has a lot of fish scales in it. If you see that frequently enough and you post yourself there and are quiet, you might have a chance to see them in the evening or morning but maybe, during January, even in the middle of the day."

Baby otters stay with their mothers until the next spring's mating season, which means the winter months are a great time to spot an entire otter family—also called a romp. "But you have to be patient," Pollpeter advises. "If you go and sit along Hematite or Honker or one of the other lake access bays here at Land Between the Lakes, you have to be patient. You might be rewarded by seeing a whole family of otters, which is a real treat."

"Frankly, the only time I've ever seen otters here at Land Between the Lakes has been in the winter. One of my favorite time periods here is when the bays freeze over, and the otters will have a little diving hole. They'll be out in the middle of the ice, and they'll slide around on the ice and pop in and out of that hole. They'll go looking for fish because fish is the majority of their diet. They may eat some snakes, turtles, even small beavers."

Pollpeter says that there aren't many natural predators of the otter in Land Between the Lakes. A bobcat, coyote, or fox could all potentially down a small otter. "If you go out west or more north, you're going to have things like a bear or a cougar who's definitely going to take on an otter. But here at Land Between the Lakes, there are limited predators that are capable of attacking one.

Otters, though territorial, don't pose a significant threat to humans, either. "When people associate some type of adjective to an otter, 'playful' is usually involved," Pollpeter says. "When you watch them from a distance, they're quite playful. If they know you're there, they're going to be wary of you and might not act in the same way. They're not going to come up to you, attack you—but they're probably not going to feel as comfortable to be as playful as they would be if they thought you weren't there."

"One time, I was leading a canoe trip on Honker Lake, and I had a whole family of otters swimming around me and the rest of the canoeists that we were leading. That was a special treat to see them swimming around us, making their noises, and being quite playful. But they were in their element. They were in the water, so there was no threat from us. But I'm glad everybody who was on that canoe trip got to see them."

To read more LBL Wildlife Reports, click here. For more information on the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, visit its website.

Tracy started working for WKMS in 1994 while attending Murray State University. After receiving his Bachelors and Masters degrees from MSU he was hired as Operations/Web/Sports Director in 2000. Tracy hosted All Things Considered from 2004-2012 and has served as host/producer of several music shows including Cafe Jazz, and Jazz Horizons. In 2001, Tracy revived Beyond The Edge, a legacy alternative music program that had been on hiatus for several years. Tracy was named Program Director in 2011 and created the midday music and conversation program Sounds Good in 2012 which he hosts Monday-Thursday. Tracy lives in Murray with his wife, son and daughter.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.
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