From Zoo to You

At Lee Richardson Zoo, Ariel, the North American river otter lives in Kansas Waters, an area of the zoo devoted to teaching zoo guests about the importance of water conservation.

As an Animal Ambassador for her species, Ariel inspires water conservation by simply being her otterly adorable self. Just a few minutes spent watching Ariel dive into her pool and swim about effortlessly is enough to highlight the importance of water ecosystems around the world.

In fact, otters are known as an indicator species for such biomes. In other words, their presence means that the ecosystem they’re living in is healthy and thriving.

Annually, the world’s 13 species of otter are celebrated on May 27, World Otter Day. Otters live across the globe and occupy every continent apart from Australia/Oceania and Antarctica. Otters are carnivorous mammals that eat a variety of fish, birds, small reptiles, and invertebrates. Depending on the species, otters are either aquatic, marine, or semi-aquatic, which means water is a big part of their ecosystem. Without enough clean water to support their habitat, otters will not thrive. Habitat loss is a major threat to all otters. Pollution, and loss of water areas, as well as over-hunting, pushed many species to the brink of extinction.

North American river otters like Ariel once inhabited all major rivers of North America. In the 19th and 20th centuries, river otters were hunted and trapped extensively for their fur. They were extirpated (also known as local extinction, when a species no longer exists within a certain location) from portions of their range, but conservation efforts are helping populations recover.

Today habitat destruction and water pollution continue to put otters at great risk. Their habitats can be both marine and freshwater: streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, and marshes. They are very adaptable and can tolerate both hot and cold climates, as well as high elevations and lowland coastal waters.

Otters are part of the Mustelidae family, which includes weasels, badgers, martens, ferrets, and wolverines. North American river otters have long whiskers, which they use to detect prey in dark or cloudy water. They are equipped with clawed, webbed feet for grabbing slippery prey. Their long muscular tail, which makes up about a third of their total length, helps propel them through water with ease. They also do well on land and are able to run up to 15 miles per hour. River otters can grow to four feet long and weigh up to 30 pounds.

In honor of World Otter Day, we can all work to help ensure a future for otters around the world. Simply being mindful of our water use at home is not only beneficial to otters, but all wildlife, as well as our fellow man. Taking shorter showers, watering our lawns during the cooler parts of the day, and waiting to do laundry until there’s a full load are all ways to help save water. Help keep waterways clean by disposing of trash responsibly and not littering or polluting waterways with harsh chemicals or garbage. Together, we can save species. Happy World Otter Day everyone!

Emily Sexson is the conservation education manager at Lee Richardson Zoo.