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You Otter Hear About This!

November 3, 2020

By Jackson Hudecki, Special Programs Coordinator, Royal Botanical Gardens.

Out getting her nature fix and looking for birds this weekend, one of our staff came across a sighting that stopped her in her tracks. She was wandering along one of the trails when she spied a mammal swimming nearby. Was it a beaver? A muskrat? A mink? Nope, it was a Northern River Otter!

River otter swimming in hendrie valley river
Photo courtesy Sarah Richer

Having worked in central and northern parts of the province, she was familiar with this species and immediately snapped some photos and video to document her sighting. According to local records, this was the first confirmed record of a Northern River Otter at RBG since the 1950s.

But if its range is farther north, why is it here? Salmon have been running from Hamilton Harbour up local waterways over the last month so it’s possible that this otter was following them. Home ranges of this species can span up to 78 km of waterway so it is unknown if, or for how long this individual will remain in the area, or whether it will return.

River otter swimming in hendrie valley river
Photo courtesy Sarah Richer

With many other mammals around, identifying an otter takes a keen eye. Much larger than RBG’s more commonly seen Mink, and lacking a North American Beaver’s broad flat rounded tail, Northern River Otters grow 0.9 to 1.2 m (3’ to 4’) long including their tail, and weigh between 5 and 14 kg (11 and 30 lbs). Males are generally larger than females, but the tail is about one-third of the total length of both sexes.

Inching closer to winter means food sources for wildlife become a driving (or in this case diving) factor in their survival. So, what do otters eat? Their very high metabolism requires them to eat frequently; they dine on fish, crayfish, frogs, birds’ eggs, birds, reptiles (including turtles), muskrats, rabbits, and occasionally some aquatic plants. As noted in RBG’s turtle recovery plans, our wetlands are home to populations of Blanding’s, Snapping, Map, and Midland Painted Turtles, which are all Species at Risk. While the otter can’t discern protected species from food, humans can help to keep them all safe by walking our trails with care.

Trails are constructed to show people the best places to observe wildlife, but they also help us to define spaces reserved just for nature. For life to thrive, people need to leave areas of water, forests, hillsides, and meadows undisturbed and intact. If you are hiking anywhere in search of nature sightings, please stay on the official trails. Use your keen powers of observation to locate mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, or plants without impacting the habitat they rely on. Besides, a Northern River Otter can hold its breath for eight whole minutes, so who knows where it is swimming right now. Maybe in a wetland near you?

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