Badgers Weasels Skunks and Otters: Mustelidae
European Otter (lutra Lutra): Species Accounts
Physical characteristics: European otters are river otters with an elongated body and a broad, flat head. When diving, otters close the valves in their ears and nose to keep water out. The fully webbed feet work like paddles, while the flattened, muscled tail acts as a rudder for steering underwater. Sensitive whiskers help them find food, especially in muddy waters. The dark brown fur has two layers: a dense, wooly underfur and coarse, waterproof guard hairs. European otters weigh about 15 to 33 pounds (7 to 15 kilograms). Their body length is 25 to 33 inches (65 to 85 centimeters), and the tail length is 15 to 20 inches (36 to 52 centimeters).
Geographic range: European otters are found in Europe including Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Norway, Greece, Scotland, Albania, and Finland, Asia including Japan, Taiwan, Java, Sri Lanka, and Sumatra, and North Africa.
Habitat: European otters are found in freshwater habitats including rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. They live along seashores where freshwater pools are formed from abundant rainfall. They den on land, inhabiting swamps along rivers and lakes, and on dry land among tree roots and abandoned animal burrows.
Diet: European otters consume fish, frogs, crabs, small rodents, and aquatic birds. They eat small prey in the water, but haul out larger prey to shore. They eat the equivalent of 20 percent of their body weight every day.
Behavior and reproduction: Although European otters forage for food in water, they den and breed on land, and are active at night. Otters seek freshwater for drinking and for washing sea salt from their guard hairs to keep them waterproof. They scent mark territories with anal secretions and deposit feces on logs and rocks to keep out trespassers. They are playful animals, often seen sliding down mud banks and icy slides. They communicate through chirps, chuckles, and whistles.
Breeding starts in February in water or on land. Males have two or more mating partners. The mother gives birth to two to four kits in April or June. The father leaves after the babies are born, while the young stay with the mother for about a year.
European otters and people: European otters are legally protected in some countries. Commercial fishermen consider them pests for raiding fisheries.
Conservation status: The IUCN lists the European otter as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, due to habitat destruction from dam construction, drainage of wetlands, and conversion of rivers into canals, as well as water pollution from agriculture and industries. Illegal hunting continues in many areas. Accidental trapping in fishermen's nets is also a common occurrence. ∎
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