By: Leigh Ramon, Animal Curator
If you’ve been to the zoo since mid-July, then you have surely smiled at our newest mammals! Juno and Astrid are North American river otters, and they do not disappoint! Whether napping on the beach or playing in the water, these two could warm the coldest of hearts! They are sisters who turned 1 year in March. Currently, they spend their mornings swimming and playing together. This, of course, is followed by lunch and a hard afternoon nap in the sand! Around 2pm, they are ready to go again! They love to come to the pool glass for photos and to investigate, as well as show off their spinning moves around the tunnel. They really are a delight!
North American river otters are wide-spread across the United States. They have several adaptations that allow them to thrive on land and in the water. In fact, they are one of only a few species that can adapt to life in fresh and salt water. Regardless of location, one thing they do require is clean water. They are a great indicator of a declining ecosystem because if the water quality becomes poor, they will move on to somewhere else. Good water quality is vital in keeping their coat in good condition. Otters’ fur is about 1,000 times more dense than human hair. In some areas, they have 373,000 hairs/in²! Grooming is a very important part of an otter’s day. They apply oil from glands in their skin to their fur to waterproof it. Therefore, their skin stays dry and warm when swimming in cold water. If the water quality is poor, their waterproofing doesn’t work properly; and they leave the waterway, cold and wet, for cleaner water.
A few other adaptations that help them in the water are best identified from the underwater tunnel at our exhibit. You will notice that as they swim around, there is a trail of bubbles behind them. They have the ability to trap air between their skin and fur. They warm this air with their body heat to help keep them warm. As they swim, the water puts pressure on their fur and some of the air is released. Hence, the trail of bubbles! As they push of the tunnel, you can see their webbed feet and thick tail that help them maneuver through the water. They use their feet like paddles and their tail like a rudder to move around with ease. Though wild populations of North American river otters are stable now, there was a time that they were in great decline. In the 1900’s, otters were overhunted for their thick fur. In addition, water quality was low across the country due to lack of regulation. Since, reintroduction and clean water regulations have allowed the species to repopulate much of their home range. They are not present in their entire historic range due to undesirable conditions and wetland development. It is important for us to be mindful of how decisions we make every day effect local wildlife, like the river otter. Something as simple as picking up dog waste and yard debris can keep these items from soiling the water going to storm drains. This modest act will not only help otters; it will help all of our local wildlife that use the streams, rivers, and lakes we know and love. Next time you’re at the zoo, don’t forget to stop by our otter exhibit in the Enchanted Forest so Juno and Astrid can show off their adaptations that make them so versatile and otterly adorable!