Otters are adorable, playful members of the Mustelid family that enjoy a life both in and out of the water. Unfortunately, due to water pollution and habitat loss, the otter has gradually declined in numbers over the years, giving conservationists the difficult task of trying to reintroduce them into abandoned habitats by building artificial homes for them.
Types of otters
Otters can be found all over the world except for Antarctica and Australia. There are more than 13 species of otter dotted around the world, and these include the sea otter, the European otter, the African clawless otter, the northern river otter and the giant otter – all of which vary in size. The otter has dense fur that is waterproof and keeps the body warm in cold waters, especially when ice is present. It is thought that the otter’s thick fur coat has been its saviour; although, ironically, it has also led to its demise due to man’s hunger for the otter’s luxurious pelt.
All otters are excellent swimmers; their streamlined bodies and rudder-like tails enable them to propel through the water at some speed. They can hold their breath for as long as four minutes and close off their ears and noses when they go underwater. Sea otters can actually swim many miles out into the sea looking for food, but they always have to come back onto dry land for safety and to wash the salt form their fur. All otters live on a diet that comprises mainly fish, crustaceans, water birds, frogs and small mammals. Baby otters, known as kits, pups or whelps, are born blind and stay that way for the first four to five weeks of their lives, but by the age of around 10 weeks they are able to swim on their own.
Otters generally live by the edges of rivers, streams and lakes, as this enables them to get in and out of the water quickly whenever unwelcome predators are around. These retiring creatures live in burrows, called holts, on dry land close to the water’s edge, some of which are dug in the sand. They do, however, also inhabit marshlands and woodlands. Twigs and branches are used to make their holts, but sometimes a vacant beaver den is used and made into the ideal otter home. These dark burrows make ideal hideaways and can easily be accessed from the water if any water predators come ambling by.
Otters are not extremely territorial like some animals, and only tend to exercise this instinct when on dry land. Territory is marked by urine and droppings to alert other otters to areas that are off-limits. It is often difficult to track the otter’s movements, as it can travel for great distances over land and through the water away from its marked territory.
Unfortunately, otters are not always aware of which environments are most suitable for them. This is one of the main things that has hindered their survival, as certain water areas contain an abundance of parasites that come from the fish that inhabit them. These are then freely transmitted to the unsuspecting totter.
Efforts to preserve otter habitat
In an attempt to save the dwindling otter population, major conservation programmes have been set up. The main emphasis has been to educate fishing bodies, landowners, schools etc. on the threats facing the otter population. "The Adopt an Otter Scheme" has also helped to raise valuable funds and awareness to enable otter habitats to be protected.
Otters in captivity
Otters can be freely seen in zoos and water centres round the world. The lifespan of the otter varies, depending on the species, but sea otters can live as long as 25 years. However, many otters do not reach their natural life expectancy in the wild. It is crucial that people are made more aware of the plight of the otter, as it would be a dreadful loss to nature if these beautiful creatures disappeared from the wild altogether and never returned.