Animal Spotlight: River Otters

Some Things You Otter Know

North American river otters have slender bodies with water-resistant fur and webbed feet. Their large tail also acts as a propeller that can keep them afloat and steer them in the water. River otters can hold their breath for 4 to 8 minutes at a time and easily dive to depths of 40+ feet! They are very adept at dealing with cold temperatures and cold waters, which is why you’ll often see our otters swimming in their ice-capped pool in the snow! 

River otters need clean wetlands and waterways with an abundance of prey. Water pollution and shrinking habitat are the main concerns for otters. In the early 20th century, the river otter population was at an all-time low in natural wetland locations such as the Poconos Mountains here in Pennsylvania. Nearly four decades later, in the 1970s, with the help of the PA Game Commission, PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and a few other groups, river otters were reintroduced in several tributaries that were considered sustainable habitat for otters. It is essential to keep our waterways clean from pesticides, pollutants and trash to ensure the safety and survival of these wonderful “water weasels.” 

At ZooAmerica, we have two North American river otters, Link and Iris. They were born in the spring of 2008, making them both 14 years old this year! Link came to us in 2013 from Minnesota, and Iris joined us in 2019 from Indiana. They get along very well, although sometimes you will hear them loudly vocalize to each other with yelps, whistles, and screams which is their primary form of communication. You may also see Link and Iris rub their tails on various areas of their habitat, leaving a musky scent trail - another form of communication.

Our otters get many forms of enrichment, including scents, novelty foods, sounds and various floats in the pool; however, one of their favorite enrichment items is a fish popsicle! Both Link and Iris are also involved in a husbandry training program here at the zoo. They currently know behaviors such as Up, Paw, Station, Target, and Touch. These behaviors allow the keepers to get a good look at their body parts and overall demeanor to tell if there is anything unusual or different that the veterinarians should examine. Training will also allow them to get their weight and give voluntary yearly vaccines easily. Training and enrichment give our river otters lots of mental and physical stimulation, setting them up for a healthy and active lifestyle!

Viewing Tip: Link and Iris love to swim in their pool, but if you can’t see them be sure to check if they are curled up under one of the many logs in their habitat.