Each year, we care for more than 100 different species in the Wildlife Medical Clinic, which is one of the most interesting aspects of volunteering there! While we can count on some species to always make an appearance (we’re looking at you, Eastern cottontails), others only make an occasional visit. A phenomenal example of these animals is the otter. YES – we are home to North American river otters in Champaign county. These unique and sleek little guys have so many amazing adaptations that make them simultaneously efficient predators, stealthy swimmers, and adorable fuzz-balls. River otters grow to be about 2 feet long and weigh up to 20 pounds. Their smaller size and aerodynamic design help them to swim easily and quickly through the water. Otters are carnivorous mammals, with most meals consisting of fish, frogs, turtles, or small mammals that they catch in their paws.
Did you know that otters were listed as threatened in the 1970’s? A combination of habitat destruction, pollution, and over-trapping for the fur industry decimated the Illinois otter population. At one point, it was likely that there were fewer than 100 otters left in the entire state. Luckily, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) took initiative and created a recovery plan in the 1990’s in a successful effort to repopulate the state. By 2009, Southern Illinois University estimated that there were ~8,400 otters in Illinois, with projections of a population over 30,000 in the years following! Another aspect that assisted the increase in otter population is the increase in beaver dams. As new laws have been introduced to decrease the pollution in Illinois waterways, the beaver population has increased. Beaver dams make great habitats for otters to live in, so these population growths went hand-in-hand! Due to the amazing efforts to help the otter population, every county in Illinois is once again home to North American river otters.
Aside from being undeniably cute, otters are incredible hunters. They are exceptionally fast and can catch prey in their mouths with impressive accuracy. Some species of otter even use rocks as tools to open the shells of their prey! Because otters are so great at hunting, play behavior is a very important part of their lives. They use play as social bonding, mating practices, and for communication. Otters are very social creatures, hence why play is so important for them. They have been known to slide down mud banks, bounce objects, and even playing games of tag. Young otters definitely play more than the adult ones, as it is with every species on earth! Speaking of baby otters, check out this awesome video of two of our doctors performing physical exams on some otter pups at Miller Park Zoo this year!
These are just a few of the incredible characteristics that make otters amazing! Along with their looks and skills, we must remind everyone to be cautious and courteous around our wildlife neighbors. While otters are some of the cutest animals out there (according to my admittedly biased opinion!), they are still wild animals with teeth and amazing hunting abilities. It is safer, and a whole lot more fun, to appreciate this species from a distance! I truly hope that each of you are inspired to share some awesome otter facts with your family and friends. Don’t forget to keep a keen look out when traveling near water – you never know when you may spot an otter friend!
This article was written by Jamie Booth, Class of 2023