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Crystal Cockman Column: River otters

What animal can hold their breath under water for up to 8 minutes, dive up to 60 feet and swim at speeds up to 8 miles per hour?

If you guessed river otter, you are right.

Crystal Cockman writes a column for The SNAP through the Three Rivers Land Trust.

The first place I ever saw a river otter was on the Uwharrie River in Montgomery County while kayaking. However, the place where I saw the most river otters at one time was on Mountain Creek in Stanly County just off Vickers Store Road. There were three of them playing in the water.

The North American river otter, also known as the northern river otter or common otter, is a semiaquatic mammal found in North America. They have short ears, powerful legs, water repellent fur and webbed toes, all of which aid them in swimming. They can also close their ears and nostrils in the water. They spend time both underwater and on land, but they feed mostly in the water. They have sensitive whiskers that help them detect their prey. They eat fish, frogs, amphibians, turtles, mollusks and crayfish. They are members of the weasel family.

Otters live in dens or burrows created initially by other animals, such as beavers, or under large tree roots. Males do not help raise young, but families of mothers and children are frequently found together. Adult males are also sometimes found in groups, and often even hunt together. A group of river otters can be called a romp, a lodge, a bevy or if they are out in the water they are called a raft. Females go to their underground burrows to have their young. Baby river otter are called pups or kits.

Otters are more active at night, and are active year-round. Although known as a river otter, they are also commonly found in lakes, wetlands and coastal areas. They are known for their playful behavior, frequently sliding into water and wrestling one another.

River otters are typically between 3 to 4 feet long, and weigh up to 30 pounds. The average lifespan of a river otter in the wild is 8 to 9 years. The oldest living otter on record was 27 years old.

The river otter is considered a species of least concern, according to the IUCN Red List. At one point they had declined through a large portion of their range, as a result of over-harvesting and poor water quality. However, they have recovered in many areas, and have even been reintroduced to some areas.

Largely as a result of over-harvesting, otters were virtually destroyed from the western portion of North Carolina by the 1930s. The Wildlife Resources Commission released 49 river otters in the western part of the state from 1990-1995. They were also released in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Now river otter are considered abundant throughout the state. They can now be harvested during the open trapping season. River otters captured in eastern North Carolina were given to West Virginia in exchange for wild turkeys, which were released and aided in the restoration of wild turkeys in our state.

River otters are very sensitive to pollution and as a result of are a good indicator of how an ecosystem is doing. I’m glad their numbers have increased in our state, and I always keep an eye out for them when I’m paddling or hiking along a larger creek or stream.

They are a secretive species, so consider yourself lucky to spot one in the wild.

Crystal Cockman is land protection director for Three Rivers Land Trust, of which Stanly County is part.