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STEM and education

Meet Raleigh Otter

Raleigh the Otter

Dear friends:

Hi, I’m Raleigh Otter. I live in the St. Johns River, the river that gives its name to the St. Johns River Water Management District.

You may have seen me or one of my friends splashing around, playing and swimming in one of Florida’s lakes, rivers, creeks or coastal marshes. I have a big family. My relatives (there are 13 kinds of river otters) can be found on five of the world ’s continents.

Many people say that we river otters look like we have a lot of fun. Well, we do. We slide down riverbanks and body surf through the water. We do love the water. In fact, we rarely stray very far from a water body. I also like to chase sticks, play hide-and-seek and roll around in the grass.

Just the facts
  • Common name: North American river otter
  • Scientific name: Lontra canadensis lataxina
  • Family: Mustelidae
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Range: North America, from the edge of the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. River otters have very large home ranges and are constantly on the move within this range. Despite the sizeable area, river otters are territorial but generally practice mutual avoidance. In their travels on land, river otters cover as much as 55 miles each year. Habitat: inland waterways, estuaries, and marine coves
  • Description: body length, 2 to 3.5 feet; tail length, 1 to 1.5 feet; average weight is approximately 17 pounds; short legs, powerful jaws and sharp teeth; nose is diamond-shaped, with two nostrils at the lower half; wide, round head with small ears; long, thick whiskers
  • Life expectancy: in the wild, up to 16 years; up to 23 years in captivity Sexual maturity: Sexual maturity is reached at 2 to 3 years of age.
  • Behaviors: River otters are usually found alone or in pairs, but they often socialize in larger groups. This species is often referred to as “playful.” Many play activities actually serve a purpose. Some are used to strengthen social bonds, to practice hunting techniques, and to scent mark. They are too swift and agile to be caught in the water. They are able fighters if cornered on land. They are strong, have good reflexes and endurance, sturdy teeth and powerful muscles. Otters are mainly nocturnal, but occasionally venture out during the day.
  • History: North American river otters were once found from Alaska to Florida. Native Americans hunted otters for their dense fur, which enabled them to keep warm. European settlers also hunted them for fur and developed the land, cutting down forests and habitats. By the 1980s, 11 states reported no otter population and 13 other states reported scarce numbers.

River otters’ bodies are made for living in the water, which is where I spend most of my time. I don’t have to wear goggles and swim fins when I go swimming. My nostrils and eyes close and seal to keep water out.

Using my webbed feet and long, thick tail, I swim quickly through the water. I have been known to swim underwater for about a quarter-mile before coming up for air. I can hold my breath for about six to eight minutes. I have even gone as deep as about 60 feet underwater.

I swim a lot differently than fish that you may have seen. Otters move underwater in an up–and–down movement, using our tails to steer. Fish swim side to side. It may not be an Olympic record, but I can swim about 7 miles per hour underwater. If you think that’s fast, I’ve been known to run as fast as 18 miles per hour on land.

In the animal kingdom, we’re not the biggest animals, but we otters are not the smallest either. Most of my Florida relatives and I weigh about 17 pounds and grow to about four feet long, which includes the length of our tails. Some larger otters living in northern part of the United States grow to about 35 pounds.

We otters are the only marine mammals that have fur instead of blubber. Our thick furry hair is nearly black to red or a grayish brown. The fur on my belly is lighter in color – silvery or grayish brown. My fur coat is actually two coats in one; an outer layer of guard hairs and a dense layer underneath that keeps water from soaking through to my skin. In the spring and summer, when you have probably packed away your coat until the cooler weather of fall and winter, I still wear my winter coat; it is with me all the time.

Like you, my Mom has taught me that I should always try to look my best, so you might see me grooming (combing my hair) frequently.

What’s for dinner? I’ve been described as having boundless energy. Like a lot of active young people, I like to eat a lot. My favorites are fish, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, birds and insects.

I have to hunt for my food rather than going to a grocery store.

Good thing that I have good eyesight that allows me to see well above and below water. I also have good hearing and sense of smell to find my food. When I am searching for food in dark water or at the river’s bottom, my sensitive whiskers help me find the food.

I don’t hibernate like bears, and I do not store food like squirrels and other animals. This means that I have to hunt all year.


Keeping in touch

My friend Francois (he’s a caterpillar) speaks French and lives in Olliewood. I don’t speak a foreign language, unless you want to count “otter talk” as a foreign language. I talk with my family in a variety of sounds, such as chirps, barks, whistles, grunts, squeals and growls.

Another way that otters communicate is by “marking” our territory with a “scent mark.” We do this using paired scent glands near the base of our tails. These glands produce a very strong, musky odor.

Habitat sweet habitat

My home is not what most people think of as a home. Some people call my home a “den” and some call it a “holt.” Whatever you call it, my home is usually dug into a riverbank or hollow log. My front door is an underwater main entrance, leading to a small space above the level of the water, with several holes in the ceiling to allow air inside and for emergency exit.

A new generation

When I was a baby, or what some people call a “pup,” my Mom watched over me very carefully.

Otter pups are born weighing about 4 to 5 ounces and are blind and toothless at birth. We may not open our eyes for five weeks after birth and our mother keeps us in the den for three or four months. It’s a good thing too. Baby otters are quite helpless for about two months.

When we do venture out of the den, one of the first things our mothers do is to teach us to swim. Our mothers carry us to the water or push us into the water.

My Mom swam under the water and stayed nearby as I first tried to swim. When I got tired, she let me crawl on her back to rest and get my nerve up to try again to swim.

Until we are about a year old, we live with our parents, but are on our own after that.


Otters in school

I don’t want to brag, but otters are pretty smart. I’ve made the grade as a unique fellow in the animal world. People say we are very smart because we know how to use tools. For example, we have used rocks to smash open clams, mussels and other shelled prey.

Sharing our world

Because we live in the water, otters are directly impacted by water pollution. Florida has many otters, but they are endangered in some parts of the United States due to hunting and loss of habitat. Our primary enemies are water pollution, air pollution, pesticides, destruction of our neighborhoods (our habitat) and hunters.

At one time, we were considered to be near extinction, but are making a comeback through the efforts of concerned individuals and environmental agencies.

Fortunately, as people act to protect our world’s water resources, our homes are preserved.


The next time you see me, or one of my friends or relatives, in one of Florida’s waterways, I hope you’ll wave and say hello.

Your friend,

Raleigh paw print

To learn more about my relatives, check out some of the cool websites that have information devoted to river otters:

Raleigh’s sources include:

  • Jacksonville Zoological Gardens, Jacksonville, Fla.
  • “Wildlife Note,” Pennsylvania Game Commission, Bureau of Information and Education, Department AR, 2001
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Web site, The North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis), James Call, 2003, as reprinted from Florida Wildlife magazine, May/June 2001 edition.


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