Q: Someone told me there are otters in the park. Why have I never seen one?
If you visit North Mississippi Regional Park, or other natural areas near the river, you might expect to see evidence of water animals such as ducks, geese, herons, bald eagles, fish, turtles, frogs, beavers and muskrats. However, tell folks that there are otters in the park and they’re likely to be surprised. Otters are one of the largest and yet most elusive animals here in our riverside city.
It’s disappointing that otters are so hard to spot, because they are “otterly” adorable! These creatures are one of the cutest and most engaging of animals, with their webbed feet, thick tails, wide whiskery faces and playful behavior. There are two types of otters living in North America. The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) is found throughout most of the continent in aquatic habitats such as rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and marshes. Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) live in various places along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Mexico and spend almost their entire lives in the ocean, even giving birth there. They are the ones that float so adorably on their backs, something river otters rarely do.
River otters, like most members of the weasel family, have long, slender bodies and short limbs. They grow 4 to 5 feet long, with their tail being up to one third of their total body length. That thick tail helps stabilize them as they expertly swim in the river. Otters spend lots of time in the water hunting and foraging for food. They eat mainly fish, crayfish, mussels and frogs, but will occasionally eat muskrats or land animals such as mice or baby rabbits. River otters have physically adapted to life in the river. Their ears and nostrils can close shut to keep water out and they have a special second eyelid in order to see under water. They are fast swimmers, going up to 8 mph, and can dive to depths of 36 feet or more. Their long bodies are also designed to make sharp turns to help them catch their slippery prey.
There are a few reasons that most Minnesotans have never seen an otter. For one, they are mainly active at night, spending most daytime hours in underground burrow tunnels near the water’s edge. Additionally, until recent decades, they were extirpated (locally extinct) in the southern part of the state, and rare in northern Minnesota. Throughout the 1800s otters were trapped in great numbers for their valuable fur, leading to a steep population decline. Changes in land use and industry destroyed their habitat and polluted the clean water they rely on. Now, thanks to trapping restrictions and environmental protections, otters have made a wonderful recovery. They are common up north, and regularly found here in the metro. In fact, their population is stable enough that the Department of Natural Resources allows a short harvest (trapping) season each year.
Even if you’re unlikely to see an otter with your own eyes, you can look for the signs they leave behind. While we might assume river otters spend all their time in the water, in fact they frequently come to shore in order to scent-mark territory, eat large prey they’ve caught, find a mate and play. Look for their tracks along the river bank where they move by bounding. That’s a leaping movement where both hind feet leave the ground at the same time, and land in just the same spot where the two front feet just left. Otters are larger than any other bounding animal in this area. And if you thought humans were the only animals who go sledding, you’re wrong! In slippery areas of snow and mud, otters will also slide! Using a combination of gravity and pushing off with their feet, otters will slide for long distances on their bellies. If you see one of these narrow slide marks down a snowy bank into the river, you will know an otter has been there.
You can help keep our rivers and lakes safe for otters and other creatures by preventing water pollution in your neighborhood. Reduce or eliminate pesticide use in your yard, use sand instead of salt on your sidewalks in the winter, and help pick up litter. All of these pollutants wind up in our water bodies sooner or later, so by keeping them out in the first place the way we “otter,” we’ll have more otters around.
Learn more about water animals during our Family Funday: Underwater World on July 15. Visit the Nature Center at North Mississippi (located at the east end of 49th Ave N. along the river) to check out a seasonal activity backpack to use while exploring the park. Hang out in our backyard on Thursday evenings this summer from 6:30-8:30 for Neighborhood Nights. Enjoy a bonfire with campfire treats, outdoor games and activities. If you have young children, come to our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under age six and an adult to explore the outdoors and learn about seasons, plants and animals.
July Public Programs: July 7—Early Birding: search for birds while on a naturalist-guided hike, 9-10:30 a.m.; July 15—Family Funday Underwater World: Use nets to explore water critters, 6:30-8:30 p.m.;
July 21—Outdoors, Pollinators in the Prairie: butterflies, bees and flowers, oh my, 1-2 p.m.; and July 28—Hike, Prairie Flowers: walk with a naturalist to learn about this amazing ecosystem, 1:30-2:30 p.m.
Sign up kids ages 6-12 for Summer Day Camps, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., M-F $150 (full-day) or $80 (half-day).
Camps run weekly all summer long. Fee assistance is available – call for details.
Find registration for these programs and more at minneapolisparks.org or call 612-370-4844 for more details. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and it could appear in a future article. This month look for a wild animal in the park or your neighborhood! Create a drawing or take a picture and think about what makes that animal special. Then show and tell a naturalist at the front desk to receive a North Mississippi Junior Naturalist button! Any images people would like to share will be displayed at the Center for the month of July. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!
This article was written by Victoria Thompson, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park