Do we have otters in North Carolina?

December 2004

Yes, North Carolina has river otters, and in recent years the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission reintroduced otters into watersheds in the western part of the state.

Otters are on exhibit at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island and the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.

Otters are frolicking, fun-loving balls of fur, measuring 3½ feet long at maturity and weighing as much as 30 pounds. They are related to skunks, minks and weasels and are meat eaters. Considered top predators, they will eat almost anything; fish, crabs, turtles, bird eggs frogs, clams, snails, crayfish, snakes, muskrats and the like. Otters are a sign of a healthy waterway, as clean water is needed to support their food supply.

The largest populations of otters are found chiefly in the coastal plain, where sounds, estuaries, rivers, streams and canals provide plenty of food and ideal habitat. In spring they give birth to one to five kitten-size young. The helpless kits are born in riverbank dens. Their eyes open after about five weeks and the female cares for them about a year. In about three months they’re ready to leave the den. Otters have few predators, however, they are trapped for their fur.

These aquatic acrobats can hold their breath underwater for as long as four minutes. They are taught to swim by their mother, and their streamlined bodies are built for subaquatic speed. Their fur is waterproof and valves in their nose and ears close to keep water out. Fast and graceful swimmers, their webbed feet and foot-long tails help propel them through the water at speeds up to 12 mph. Otters often create mud slides on banks, where they skim down on their bellies, chattering all the while.

Problems between otters and people are rare. Otters are quite secretive and generally avoid humans. When incidents do occur it usually involves otters doing what otters do – eat fish. This can become a problem when commercial fishermen, pond owners, or commercial trout produces experience fish depredation, ranging from otters eating pond koi or goldfish to extensive depredation in a commercial fish farming operation.

The N.C. Aquariums on Roanoke Island and at Pine Knoll Shores feature these playful animals in natural habitat exhibits.