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Frolicking Otters

The North American river otter has made a comeback in the U.S., and Shore residents can often spot them along coastal rivers and estuaries

A playful, social animal, the river otter is not an uncommon sight along the Jersey Shore, especially in winter.

What they are: Otters are mustelids, belonging to a group of mammals that includes weasels, mink and badgers. They’re specially adapted for life in and near lakes, rivers and estuaries, with long, streamlined bodies, a thick, insulated coat of fur and webbed feet on short legs.

The species we see locally, the North American river otter, is light brown to black and can be between 2 and 3.5 feet long, weighing in between 10 and 30 pounds. A long, tapered tail makes up a third of an adult’s length. They have dark eyes and thick, long whiskers that help them sense their surroundings.

A river otter’s diet consists mostly of fish, though they’re opportunistic carnivores, and will also eat crustaceans, mollusks, insects and even small birds and mammals. Fierce ambush hunters, otters can catch and kill fish up to half their own size.

River otters are highly social, and form family groups centered around a female and her young. Adult males often gather in their own close social groups, though adults of both sexes have been known to attach themselves to unrelated otter families as “helpers.”
While they’re far faster and more agile in water, otters are also known for being expert sliders on land. A muddy slope or ice- or snow-covered surface is a perfect substrate, and lets them move much faster than their stubby legs alone can carry them. 

Where to find them: River otters used to be abundant across most of the continent, wherever there were permanent bodies of water that offered an adequate food supply. They were extensively trapped for hundreds of years, but habitat loss is the main reason they’re far less common than they used to be.

Otters need plenty of unspoiled waterfront acreage to thrive. Because they don’t dig their own dens in the banks of rivers, streams and brackish waterways, the areas where they live must also support complimentary species like beavers, muskrats and foxes, who do the digging for them. They’re also highly sensitive to pollution from PCBs and mercury.

Development and environmental degradation led to population declines all over the country, but river otters have made a comeback since the mid 1900s thanks to conservation and reintroduction efforts. Today, they’re abundant enough to be given a “species of least concern” designation.

New Jersey’s rivers, reservoirs and coastal estuaries are home to lots of river otters, but because they’re reclusive, many people don’t realize they’re around. From spring to fall, they tend to be nocturnal, but they’re much more active during the day in winter.

Look for them in undeveloped waterfront areas, especially where there’s a steep bank, as opposed to a sloping sandy beach. Studying up on their tracks and scat may help you pinpoint likely otter habitats. I’ve seen otters swimming and playing in Manahawkin’s Mill Creek, and others I know have spotted them in the Metedeconk and Navesink rivers.

Why bother: Otters are highly entertaining creatures. They seem to have a well-developed sense of play, and will swim and dive and chatter with companions and generally look like they’re having a great time.

Because otters are shy and absent form highly populated areas, people are often surprised to learn that they live here at all – and that just makes it more satisfying when one pops up. 

Sean Conneamhe February 26, 2012 at 07:47 PM
"Thank you for an interesting article."
Jenn Welc February 26, 2012 at 11:33 PM
https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/104061836369591575703/albums/5002863189549449233 Loving the otters article! Follow the link for photos of them in the lagoon by Mill Creek Road (where they slide through storm drain pipes under the road to get over from the creek. I've spotted them there maybe 4-5 times, usually in winter (see prints in the photo!) and have also seen them swimming in Barnegat Bay near dusk at Key Point Marina in... Waretown?
Ken Bank February 27, 2012 at 12:49 AM
It's easier to find frolicking otters than it is to find Barnegat Committeemen working at their "full-time" job. Btw, I didn't know otters are related to weasels. We sure have alot of them in this town.
Guntoter66 February 27, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Ken, very funny. Good to know folks are watching all the "ceatures" in your town. Enjoyed it.
Catpan February 27, 2012 at 02:24 PM
A couple years back I spotted what I thought was a seal on my parents neighbors dock just off the beaver dam creek. It was dusk so I tried to get a little closer to see what exactly it was. Turned out to be a family of otters. A mother and two juveniles. First time I ever saw otters at the Jersey shore.
Mattie February 27, 2012 at 05:27 PM
Loved your photos Jenn. Thanks for sharing
Tom Davis (Editor) February 27, 2012 at 09:26 PM
Terrific article...very informative. My son once used these nature columns as a resource for a school report.
Linda February 27, 2012 at 11:46 PM
Several years ago I saw a rather large animal, unfortunately dead on the road. I turned around to see what it was, and it turned out to be an otter. I was so surprised and saddened. I moved his body into the woods off of Allaire Road. I suppose he was crossing to get to the pond on the property just west of the middle school.. I am happy to see these wonderful creatures are becoming more numerous in our area.
isthatallugot February 29, 2012 at 04:55 PM
There are 2 otters that I see on Cedar Creek once or twice every summer. Past the Route 9 bridge by the bathing beach.
john dolan March 19, 2013 at 06:47 AM
that is awesome i once saw one years ago playing in a tthe passaic river. i wasas very young i would love to know more about otters in nj me and some friends are proposing to create an otter awareness day for nj
jerseyswamps March 19, 2013 at 12:19 PM
Wasn't he a character in Animal House?

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