Otters enthusiastically embrace fun
If ever there was a creature that seems to enjoy life more, relishes playtime and roughhousing as much, or takes more pleasure in spending time with family just lying around or goofing off, then I've never met the critter. Without a shred of doubt, river otters fit this bill wonderfully.
River otters belong to the largest family of mammalian carnivores in the world -Mustelidae, or weasel family. Both river and sea otters share a number of characteristics that are common to most members of the family.
For starters, all members of the weasel family have two anal scent glands located under the tail. These scent glands produce a strong odoriferous musk that mink, weasels, badgers, fishers, pine martens, wolverines and otters use for territorial marking, identification, and, to some degree, defense.
Additionally, as you've probably noticed, otters and most of their relatives have a tubular body design. Otters' rumps are typically higher than their shoulders and when they walk it is usually in a loping, undulating manner. Nearly everything encountered that's new or different, whether on land or in the water, is investigated thoroughly by these fun-loving, curious creatures.
The first time I encountered an otter it was a family group of four individuals. I was fishing on a small lake southwest of Bemidji in a shallow bay choked full of dense emergent vegetation and lily pads. I heard strange grunts coming from somewhere in the backwater bay, but I couldn't identify the source of the unusual sounds. Taking a break from fishing, I began to search for what was making the peculiar noises.
I soon saw the animals, long and sleek, swimming gracefully and purposely toward my boat in a zigzag kind of way. At first I didn't know what they were, though I suspected they were otters almost from the outset. And it wasn't until each of the otters began lifting its body halfway out of the water, like furry Jack-in-the-box toys - popping up and down - that I knew for sure.
The group came to within 50 feet of my boat, grunting, diving, and swimming erratically about, until they abruptly left me as quickly as they came. To tell you the truth, I think I was just as delighted as they were by our meeting.
Otters are well "suited" for their semi-aquatic lifestyle. They possess one of the densest fur coats in the animal kingdom. Their pelage is also oily, made possible by oil glands under their skin. The oil in the fur keeps water away from the skin, thus keeping them warm. And because of their special wet-dry coats, these amazing mammals can enter and re-enter the most frigid of waters, in the dead of winter, under the ice and never freeze.
If you've ever encountered otter tracks in the snow, you've probably noticed how the otter uses the snow to its full advantage and, I suppose, to the animals' complete and utter enjoyment. Like children sliding down snowy hillsides inside their toboggans, otters use their powerful back legs to propel themselves while using their bellies as sled-bottoms slithering along like furry snow-snakes atop the snow.
Once in the water, otters use their hind legs and webbed toes to thrust themselves swiftly both under and on top of the water. Their long bodies and flexible spines help otters maneuver especially well as they search for crayfish on the bottoms of lakes and rivers, and to pursue fishes, frogs, tadpoles, and salamanders. So adapted are otters to their watery world, even their ears and noses evolved for underwater living; they're "valvular" or, in other words, their ears and noses can be closed to keep water out.
Unexpectedly for such expert swimmers, baby otters have to be taught how to swim. Swimming lessons begin when the youngsters are around 7 or 8 weeks of age. The mother otter coaxes her young into the water by vocalizing to them. And if all her kind words don't do the trick, she sometimes grabs her youngsters forcibly by the scruffs of their necks with her mouth and either drops or tosses them into the water!
Those who study animal behavior believe that playfulness is a sure sign of intelligence. Indeed, otters are among the most playful creatures in the animal kingdom. Otters have been observed wrestling with one other, playing such games as (believe it or not), tag, hide-and-seek and sliding games, as well as playing with the objects they find such as stones, sticks and even other animals. Like cats, otters are known to play with the prey they catch.
River otters are very common throughout Minnesota's abundant lakes and rivers. Even so, most people never get a chance to observe them in the wild. Naturally wary of people, the nevertheless sociable otter will sometimes surprise you, as the family of otters did me years ago.
It's also entirely possible that a pair or family of otters is living in a wetland, lake, or river near you. They may even have taken up residence in an abandoned beaver lodge or muskrat hut. Wherever they are, you can rest assured that Minnesota's river otters are doing well - living, hunting, and playing - as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org