Lecture

Things You "Otter" Know

Tuesday, February 16, 2021 - 6:00pm - 8:00pm
Event Location
Online - Zoom

Speaker: Karen McDonald, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Advance Registration Required
Yes

Event Details

River otter on rocky beach
Lontra canadensis, the North American river otter (Photo: Matthew Fryer)

Learn about river otters in the Chesapeake Bay, in a two-part event for kids and adults! Once you sign up online, you'll be able to enter the webinar any time after it starts. You can participate in the drawing event at 6pm, the lecture at 7pm, or both. This event was recorded. Sign up online to view the recording.

Part 1: Otter Anatomy - Draw An Otter With A Biologist (6-6:45pm)

You just need a sketch pad, pencil and a decent Internet connection. Ideal for ages 6-adult, and anyone who likes mixing art and science.

Part 2: Lecture - Things You "Otter" Know (7-8pm)

Woman in sunglasses holding an osprey bird
Karen McDonald (Photo: SERC)

River otters are a mostly nocturnal and notoriously shy species that biologists are just beginning to understand. In this science talk, Karen McDonald will explore what we know, what we don't know and the research SERC is conducting about otters. Younger kids can download this coloring sheet to do during the talk or afterwards.

Want to go deeper? Join Karen McDonald on Feb. 23, for a two-hour workshop on using game cameras to film wildlife near your home. Game camera NOT required to attend! 
Game Camera Workshop: How To Track Wildlife In Your Own Backyard
Tuesday, Feb. 23, 5:30-7:30pm ET
Details and registration

See past and upcoming virtual lectures

Bonus Q&A:
Here are answers to questions we received during the webinar, but weren't able to answer live! 

Q: What is the most endangered species of otters?
There are 9 of 13 species of otters that are endangered or vulnerable. Of those, the endangered species are: Hairy-nosed otter, Sea otter, Marine otter, Southern River Otter--they are all endangered. The most endangered is  thought to be the Hairy-nosed otter right now, though there's always debate.

Q: Do river otters hold onto their food on their tummy like sea otters?
Nope, only sea otters do that. River otters don't float like sea otters do. 

Q: Why is the fire purple?
That would be the camera lens, or your computer settings. 

Q: Do otters have a “singular bathroom” or do different otters go in different places?
They go in multiple places and latrines. 

Q: Are otters are in the weasel family?
Yes, they are related to skunks and weasels. 

Q: What distinguishes a river otter from a muskrat?
River otters are longer (about 5'), they have a thick paddle like tail, and carnassial or meat eating teeth. Muskrats are around 2.5' long, have a rat-like tail, and have orange teeth like a beaver.  

Q: Do eagles eat the full-sized otters or mostly the smaller and younger ones?
Eagle's can't eat the adults, just babies or early juveniles. 

Q: Do otters live in fresh or salt water or both?
Yes, they are both fresh water, brackish water, and some salt water (though not their favorite). 

Q: Based on that map - I could find river otters throughout the Mississippi river and other Midwest rivers?
Yes, they can be found in freshwater inland waterways and lakes in the Eastern US region. 

Q: Do you know if the otters at the Marine Museum in Solomons Island are river or sea otters?
They are river otters. 

Q: Where are the oil glands and how to they get it applied to their fur?
Their glands are near their rear. 

Q: Does the fur form a waterproof layer keep their skin dry?
Yes, their fur is like an insulating dry suit. 

Q: Do Chesapeake River Otters change their coats so that when the water is warmer in the summer their coat is less thick and then during the winter their coat is thicker?
Yes, they do shed their coats to be thinner and thicker, like most animals. 

Q: Do otters groom each other?
Yes, they frequently groom each other, males will groom each other as well as females and young. 

Q: How long does the pups stay with mom?
They stay with mom for about a year. 

Q: How can you tell play-wrestling otters from fighting otters?
Usually fighting otters are making more aggressive sounds, biting more with their teeth, and posturing as if they are fighting. Playing otters roll around, nip, and are generally effervescent. 

Q: Have they ever stolen one of your cameras?
Nope, never stolen a camera. 

Q: I have otters in my pond. How can I tell how many there are? Can I figure it out from the latrine? Or is there a better way?
You can't really tell from a latrine, how many otters there are. A game camera would be your best bet. 

​​​​​​Q: Will they eat a Canada goose?
I don't think so, they seem too large. Maybe a gosling.

Q: Are any of the camera feeds LIVE cams for student observations?
Not at SERC but there are many online. There's one at the Tennessee Aquarium https://tnaqua.org/live/river-otter-falls/, and the Detroit Zoo https://detroitzoo.org/otter-live-cam/

Q: What kind of call do they use?
They make high pitched chirps, trills, and barks. 

Q: ​​​​​​By studying the Scat you can figure out their role in the food chain?
Yes, we can look at what they are eating and determine what kinds of prey items they are consuming. 

Q: Have you shared your videos with the Smithsonian eMammal Project?
Nope, not yet.     

Q: Why do otters stick their tongues out?
They don't do it on purpose, mostly just to wipe their lips or they forget to pull it back in! 

Q: We have a 6 acre pond on our farm and we have seen an otter both on the land and in the water. We have never seen more than the one otter. Is it likely that he/ she is alone or are there more in the area that we just haven't seen?
It's likely that you have a solitary female. Females like to be alone, or in very small family groups, and males often travel in larger romps. 

Q: In collecting data on local otters for your citizen science study, do you only want data about Chesapeake Bay otters?  Are you interested in river otters from the Bethany Canal in DE/Indian River Inlet?
Right now we are only interested in Maryland otters, but Delaware Department of Natural Resources may be interested in your sightings. 

Q: Has there been any recent species of otters that have gone extinct?
There is the Japanese River Otter and the wolf-sized river otter of the Myocene era, which was called "Siamogale meliutra" 

Q: There have been 3 river otters hanging out at Huntley Meadows in Alexandria which have caused a lot of excitement for visitors and photographers. Is this odd for them to be there at this time?
Nope, if there is food there then the otters may be there. Currently otters are more social right now as they are breeding and sharing latrines. Come Spring and Summer they will disperse and you'll not see larger groups. Seeing an individuals is not unusual though. 

Q: Where do they sleep?
Otters sleep in dens, old beaver lodges, muskrat holes, hollow trees, or anywhere safe from predators where they can hide. They don't dig their own dens, they borrow them from other animals or take them over after the animal leaves. 

Q: Do they eat all the eel?
Yes, they ate all the eel.

Q: How do young otters leaving the nest find new rivers?
After about a year they can move on, though some young females may stick around to help raising the next pups.

Q: What are otters diet?
If you mean river otters, then mostly fish, crayfish, blue crabs, eels, amphibians, ducks, some clams, and insects. 

Q: Are they in the Delaware River?
I don't know. I’m not sure they have been studied there. 

Q: So based upon your videos, what can you tell about the health of the Bay?
We can't make any conclusive statements yet, we're just in the pilot stage of our studies. We can say that they are in the Bay, they're fairly wide spread from what we've seen so far, and that they aren't afraid of coming into human habitats (docks, piers, marinas, etc.)

Q: ​​​​​​​How many kid otters at a time? I've seen twins and slide mentioned triplets. What's common number?
They can have anywhere from 3-5 at a time. 

Q: Do otters live in Mexico? 
Four species have been recorded in Mexico and South America: Giant otter, neotropical otter, southern river otter, and Marine otter. 

Q: What is the cardiac bone in an otter's heart for? 
The cardiac skeleton (os cordis- meaning "bone heart") of river otters is mostly made of coarse allogen fibers, calcified cartilage, and a bit of bone with white marrow. The thickness increases with age. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10853970/ . The bone is found in the internal walls of the heart, due to a process called "endochonfral ossification," this may be because otter hearts are much bigger than human's, and they need extra support in their heart especially as they age; but scientists aren't completely sure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBQCfjQuIV4