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River otters are most playful of mammals

I recently attended a naturalist-led program about river otters. The program, sponsored by the local chapter of Minnesota Master Naturalists, "Bogs and Logs," was held at Neilson Spearhead Center on the shores of beautiful Spearhead Lake southwest of Bemidji.

It was a fun-filled and educational evening that was well attended by chapter members, guests and speakers, including Chippewa National Forest Botanist Tom Heutte who spoke about garlic mustard, which is an important invasive species of plant, and about next month's Community Garlic Mustard Pulling Event.

(The mustard event is sponsored by Chippewa National Forest, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Turtle Lake Township and will take place at Stony Point Campground from 10 a.m. to noon May 21, 2011, with a potluck cookout to follow. For additional information, visit:

But more about river otters . . .

Naturalists Dan Bera and Mary Pannkuk put on an excellent program about these delightful Minnesota mammals. Using their interpretive skills and humor, Dan dressed Mary in an assortment of otter accessories while both naturalists educated the group about interesting river otter natural history information.

By the time the short program was concluded, Mary was adorned in complete otter attire, including a tail, whiskers, webbed paws and a warm coat. We also enjoyed a nature hike along Spearhead Lake and to Otter Bridge, plus food and refreshments, which included a delicious soup replete with an otter favorite, crayfish. Mmmmmm, good!

Indeed, if ever there was a creature that seems to enjoy life, relishes playtime and roughhousing, or takes pleasure in spending time with family members, or just lying around or goofing off, then it's most certainly the river otter. In fact, Dan pointed this out to all of us: that a good share of the time - I think he said 20-percent of an adult river otter's time - is spent playing or recreating.

Otters and most of their relatives such as mink and weasels, 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.

If you've ever encountered otter tracks in the snow, you've probably noticed how the otter uses the snow to its full advantage. Like children sliding down snowy hillsides on their toboggans, otters use their powerful back legs to propel themselves while using their bellies as sled-bottoms like furry snow-snakes atop the snow.

Not long ago, during my mid-April turkey hunt with my son, we encountered a set of otter tracks that crossed the snowy forest trail we were walking on. Typical of most mustelids, the otter bounds in a hopping sort of locomotion. But unlike any of its relatives, otters readily use topography, gravity and snow and ice for travel. As we examined the otter tracks, we clearly saw slide marks in the snow as the otter slid down a nearby hill on its belly.

Although well suited for acrobatic belly slides, otters are even more "suited," so to speak, for their mostly 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 coats, these amazing animals can enter and re-enter the most frigid water and never freeze.

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!

Animal behaviorists believe that playfulness is a sign of high intelligence. Indeed, otters are among the most playful of any wild creature alive. Otters have been observed wrestling with one another, playing games, as well as playing with objects they find such as stones, sticks and even other animals. Like cats, otters are known to play with the prey they catch.

Thankfully, 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 and curious river otter will sometimes surprise you by swimming close to you if you happen to be in a boat on their favorite lake.

It's also entirely possible that a pair or family of otters is living in a wetland, lake or river near you without you even knowing. They may even have taken up residence in an abandoned beaver lodge or muskrat hut.

For sure, as Dan and Mary so humorously and playfully enlightened us about what it's like being an otter- whether they be hunting, playing, sliding or swimming - river otters are among the most charming of Minnesota's many and fascinating mammals 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