Plants and Animals

River Otter

These furry, sleek Missouri residents can be seen running on land or gliding through water.

One Friday last winter I answered my phone at August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area and heard the familiar question, “Hey… got your camera?” I’m fortunate to have a few friends who spot critters for me and I recognized the voice of Shane on the line, the best spotter of them all. Shane had observed a pair of river otters on a nearby frozen lake and he knew I would be intrigued by his discovery. “Are you sure they’re not beavers or muskrats?” I asked. “Give me a little credit,” was Shane’s reply, making it clear that his information was on the up and up. After work, I rushed home and spent the evening readying my equipment for the weekend, excited to add a new species to my portfolio: the river otter.

The river otter (Lontra canadensis) is a sleek mammal, equally comfortable on land or in water. Its densely furred body is streamlined from head to tapered tail. Both sexes are a rich brown with a silvery throat and muzzle, but the male is larger, weighing up to 30 pounds. They live in streams, rivers and lakes and often reside in abandoned muskrat or beaver dens. River otters can be found throughout most of Missouri. Their favorite food is crayfish but they also feed on fish and other prey. When underwater, for up to four minutes at a time, river otters use their prominent whiskers to locate mussels, frogs and turtles along the bottom.

River otters communicate with a variety of vocalizations but they also make their presence known to each other by leaving droppings and scent markings at common latrine sites. Following courtship and mating, females bear two to five young in late winter that stay with their parents until the following spring. As furbearers, river otters can be trapped in Missouri during the regulated season for their durable pelts. If otters wear out their welcome on private property, for assistance landowners should request this free publication by writing to MDC, Missouri’s River Otter: A Guide to Management and Damage Control, PO Box 180, Jefferson city, MO 65102-0180 or email pubstaff@mdc.mo.gov or contact your regional MDC office (see Page 3 for phone numbers).

Early the next morning I sat at the edge of the lake in a stand of scrubby willows, tripod splayed over my lap and lens trained on a small opening in the ice. As the first rays of dawn bathed the frozen surroundings with a soft glow, a glistening creature emerged from the opening and onto the ice. It only took a moment to confirm the species. Shane’s information had proven as golden as the morning light. Entranced by my good fortune, it took me a moment to begin photographing the playful otter, and later its mate, as they frolicked and squabbled over breakfast, occasionally glancing at me with icy-whiskered grins.

I’ve never felt more immersed in nature’s grace and whimsy. When the action finally lulled, I broke from my hiding spot and headed home to review the images. I reminded myself to thank Shane one last time.

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

To learn more about otters in Missouri, hear audio of an otter or watch a video of an otter, visit the link listed below