Otter Excursions

One of the most enjoyable 4-footed wildlife interactions one can hope to enjoy on a semi-regular basis at Elk Lake is 'swimming' with the otters. By 'swimming' I mean floating in my kayak among the otters who are doing all the swimming. However, because the kayak puts you so close to the water level, it feels like I am actually interacting with these curious and interesting animals.

Yes. I know otters eat fish. However, my fish biologists assure me Elk Lake enjoys a burgeoning fish population. Thus the otters are doing us no harm on this regard.

Yes. I know otters are of the Mustelidae family with such ferocious cousins as the weasel, polecat, and badger. In fact, I know from personal experience these animals are fearsome opponents more than capable of defending themselves against attacks from larger predators.

Nonetheless they are fascinating creatures - graceful and swift in the water as well as quick and agile on land. So, I dedicate this post to the Elk Lake Otters. May their days be long and playful.

The otter's long slim body is covered with an amazingly soft underfur protected by an outer layer made up of long guard hairs. Their coat is designed to trap air and keep them warm and dry in their water-filled environment.

Elk Lake's Otters do not leave in the winter time. And, since the lake is ice-covered, the water is obviously quite cold. The otter's high metabolic rate keeps them warm, However, like other mammals which have a high metabolism (think hummingbird), otters must consume a fair amount of food. In fact, adult otters living in 50 degree water must eat at least 4 1/2 pounds of food daily to survive. Thus an adult spends 3 to 5 hours a day hunting and a nursing mother up to 8 hours per day.

Otters den on land and, unlike the beaver, they have been known to den quite a long distance from water. An otter den is called a holt or couch.

An otter pup (like the one shown here with an adult), is called a whelt, kit, or pup. Adult males are called dogs. Adult females are called bitches.

While I always think of otters as water dwellers, they actually spend quite a bit of time on the land to avoid waterlogged fur. In fact, little nooks and crannies such as this one are a favorite place to while away the hours before the next meal.

Otters are curious and playful. Perhaps that is why they have captured my imagination. Occasionally I have seen a lone animal. However, it is much more common to see them in groups of three to eight - playing, chattering, eating, and just plain enjoying life.

Female otters typically give birth to four to six young. These two curious youngsters appear to be the only two left in this family. Note the long whiskers sported by these youths. The otter's whiskers are extremely sensitive and actually help it to locate prey in murky waters.

Note also the webbed toes and long claws. These uniquely shaped feet have an extremely delicate sense of touch. River Otters (the species which inhabits our local waters) are well-adapted to life in our lake. Their head and short neck are of similar diameter. Their ears are short, but this does not limit their hearing. In fact, I found it interesting to note both their sense of hearing and smell are extremely acute. Surely that is a bit unique for an animal who spends much of its time underwater. Otters have streamlined bodies with their tails contributing up about 1/3 to their total body length. Their legs are short and powerful, and while they do not move as freely on land as in the water, I have seen them travel very quickly, even on land.

Here is one final piece of River Otter trivia: Did you know their right lung is 19.3% larger than their left and has four lobes as compared to the two on the left? I didn't. Why? Well, it seems scientists are not quite sure but, without doubt, one day they will find this, too, is part of this amazing animal's intelligent design.

And while most would not expect to see otters while visiting Elk Lake in the winter, you might be surprised at how frequently I see tracks or even a little dark body busily working away on the ice doing - well, otter business obviously!

Such is life at Elk Lake - and I am glad I am able to enjoy it!

Lady of the Lake

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