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Matt Ragen

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River Otter Photos
(Lutra Canadensis)

We are fortunate to have a retreat in the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound that supports a wide range of wildlife. We'd seen otters off the coast of our property for years but they're pretty quick and difficult to photography in the wild. In the fall of 2002, I got fortunate and caught this river otter. It was dining on something delectable while lying on a piece of driftwood on our beach. Within a few seconds, it noticed me from about 150 feet away and slipped off the log into the water with its snack. Note that we originally thought that this was a sea otter but have learned the difference from a note we received from a biologist at the Vancouver Aquarium.

River Otter Photos From
Picture taken in
November 2002


Check out our other pages with sea mammal photos

Orca Whales
Seals and Sea Lion



Background on River Otters

The river otter is the largest member of the Mustelidae family. Its body is long and slender, whiskers and nose pad are prominent, and the ears are small. Upper parts of the body are dark brown, and the underside is gray to brown. The tail is long and heavy, and it is furred the entire length. The legs are short, with five webbed toes on each foot. Adults are three to four feet long, including the tail, and generally weigh 15 to 25 pounds. Their ears and nose close when they submerge, and their streamlined bodies, webbed feet and long tails contribute to their excellent swimming ability. Their eyes are located near the top of the skull, allowing otters to see above the surface while swimming nearly submerged. A fat layer under the skin and its dense, oily fur protect the otter in extremely cold water. The facial whiskers are extremely sensitive to touch, enabling the otter to locate food items in turbid water. The sense of smell is also acute, but the senses of sight and hearing are less well developed.

Otters are opportunistic and will eat foods that are most available. Fish make up the greatest portion of the otter's diet. Other foods include amphibians, insects, mammals and birds. Foods and foraging techniques vary in different areas and at different times of the year. In clear water, otters use their excellent swimming ability to capture fish by sight and direct pursuit. In murky water, they use their whiskers to locate prey.

River otters are quite adaptable, utilizing a variety of habitat types. Although they frequent lakes and ponds, they typically live in marshes and along wooded rivers and streams with sloughs and backwater areas. Otters live in dens in the ground most of the year. Otters rarely dig dens themselves; instead, they utilize dens built by beavers or other animals. Brush piles, root areas under large trees and similar sites are used as temporary homes. In our case, at one time, we unfortunately found that they utilized the crawl space under our house as their den until we sealed it up. The presence of beavers in an area is important to otters, not only because of the dens they build, but also because the ponds created by beaver dams make ideal otter habitat.

River otters do frequent ocean areas and are often mistaken for sea otters. Courtesy of the Vancouver Aquarium, we learned that river otters are much more common than sea otters in the Puget Sound area. Here are a few ways to differentiate between the species:

River otters have much longer tails and a longer head than the sea otter. Sea otters have have large webbed hind flippers.
When at the surface, river otters tend to swim on their bellies. Sea otters float on their back.
River otters would be more likely to climb on a log or onshore to eat, in the posture captured in the photo on your site. Sea otters tend to eat their food in the water while floating on their backs, with the food on their stomach.
River otters are on land frequently. Sea otters almost never leave the water.
River otters tend to be all brown. Adult sea otters' heads lighten throughout their lifetime, becoming quite blond.


Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris)

The sea otter is the smallest marine mammal in North America they grow to roughly four feet in length. One remarkable fact about sea otters is that they are one of the few animals that use tools. Sea otters use rocks or shellfish or other hard/sharp objects to separate food from rocks or as a hammer to break the shells of their food. Sea otters eat a variety of marine invertebrates including clams, mussels, urchins, crabs, and abalone. Sea otters do not have a thick layer of fat or blubber. Instead, they rely upon their dense fur for insulation. The fur is sensitive to soiling from oil or other contaminants and soiling of the fur by oil generally results in death. Adult otters give birth to a single pup nearly every year.

For books that are related to otters, check out some of these selections from



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