The Playful Otter
OTTERS are among earth’s most playful animals. They seem to take delight in sliding on their bellies, either down snow-covered slopes or wet riverbanks. They play tag and engage in mock combats. They are not averse to including other creatures—dogs, raccoons or foxes—in their endless games.
The common otter of Europe is much like the otter inhabiting North America, though the European variety is smaller. Both are superb swimmers. An otter is said to travel in water at a rate of some 10 miles (16 kilometers) per hour. Usually three humps are seen above water when the animal is swimming—the head, the back and the end of the tail. A family group of otters swimming in line has at times been mistaken for a sea monster.
Both the North American and the European otters are also at home on land. Despite short legs, otters can overtake a running man. They may travel some 15 miles (24 kilometers) during a night. There is a record of one otter that was chased for 28 miles (45 kilometers).
These creatures are well equipped for swimming. The strong tail functions as an excellent rudder and enables the animal to glide into the water without making a big splash. An otter may swim with all four legs drawn up against its body. When that is the case, the tail provides propulsion. Or, the otter may swim by rapidly moving its large, webbed hind feet.
The youngsters, however, do not automatically take to the water. Writes Francois Bourlière in The Natural History of Mammals: “Liers [a North American authority on otters] informs us that young otters do not enter the water of their own accord but are dragged in by their mother, who pulls them by the skin of the neck and catches small prey (crayfish, frogs, and little fish) to lure them on. Moreover their first attempts at swimming are awkward, the young learning little by little to swim properly.”—P. 189.
For the common otter diving is no problem. This creature is capable of diving 40 feet (12 meters) below the surface and may stay underwater for about four minutes. It can swim underwater for as much as one fourth of a mile (.4 kilometer).
Simply amazing is this animal’s sense of direction. It may get into a frozen river through a break in the ice and thereafter has no trouble in finding its way back to the opening.
Though usually concentrating on smaller fish and other water creatures, an otter may tackle a fish weighing as much as 20 pounds (9 kilograms). This is quite a feat, considering that this is about the weight of the otter itself. To catch fish, the animal uses its forepaws.
The otter’s fur is ideally suited for its existence. The outer layer consists of long coarse hair, whereas soft, woolly fur makes up the underlayer. When in water, the outer layer adheres closely to the body, compressing the dry underfur. Air trapped in the underfur provides excellent insulation, keeping the skin dry.
Sea otters, each weighing some 70 pounds (30 kilograms), are even more creatures of the waters than is the common otter. They are found near the shores of North America and Siberia. There in beds of brown seaweed, known as kelp, sea otters are at home. So as not to drift away when at rest, they wrap themselves with some kelp.
In times of storm, sea otters come to land and search for an area sheltered from the winds. Regarding their sleeping sites, Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia (Vol. 12, pp. 86, 87) states: “At night the sea otter rests in a depression, usually protected by a rock and marked with a feces heap; this sleeping site may be 10 m[eters] [33 feet] from the water. During the summer, sea otters sometimes spend the entire night on seaweed fields far from shore, where they are protected from their chief enemies, the killer whale and the Greenland shark. The otters flee onto land when one of these predators approaches.”
When speed is not essential, this creature lies on its back, propelling itself with its tail. When swimming right side up and moving its webbed feet in unison or alternately, the sea otter may swim at a rate of some 12 miles (19 kilometers) per hour.
The animal may dive 100 feet (30 meters) or more below the surface to get its food—sea urchins, mussels, clams and the like. Once the sea otter comes to the surface with food, its chest becomes a dining table. Perhaps with a rock on its chest, a sea otter will bang shellfish against it. Or, it may pry open shellfish with its teeth or paws. Still another method is to pound one clam against another one.
To satisfy its hunger, the sea otter must do quite a bit of diving and pounding. It may consume the equivalent of a fifth of its body weight in food daily. In a little less than an hour and a half, one sea otter reportedly came up with 54 mussels, pounding these against a stone more than 2,000 times.
The sea otter is also quite adept at scratching itself. All four paws may be in motion at one time, each in a different direction.
In caring for its young, the sea otter shows a certain playfulness. While the mother floats on her back, the baby nurses. At times the mother will throw her baby into the air and then catch it. Mother sea otter makes sure that her baby is clean. Using her teeth and her tongue, she cleans it thoroughly, from head to tail.
Because of their valuable fur, sea otters have long been hunted ruthlessly. Finally, at the beginning of the twentieth century, they came under the protection of the law. Now sea otters have increased to the point where fishermen along the coast of California claim that their livelihood is threatened. They contend that otters are consuming too many shellfish. Already an undetermined number of otters have been shot despite their being protected by law.
Man’s commercial ventures often make life difficult for earth’s creatures, including the playful otter. But these amusing animals still scamper about unmolested in many places where you can observe their playful antics.