American Oceans

Different Types of Otters

Otters are some of nature’s most adorable creatures. The fuzzy little swimmers warm the coldest hearts with their stubby legs and furry faces.

Oriental Short-Clawed Otters cuddling

While all otters are cute, there are many unique species, each with distinguishing features.

This article examines the different types of otters and provides a deeper understanding of one of our sweetest species. 

What Is an Otter?

sea otters lontra felina taxonomy swimming in saltwater

Otters are fuzzy carnivores that come from the Lutrinae subfamily.

Otters have long, slender bodies with short limbs and webbed feet. Thick, luxurious pelts cover the creatures, insulating them from the cold and wet conditions.

All otter species are aquatic, semi-aquatic, or marine-based mammals. The critters come in a variety of sizes, but all have long, flat tails that help them swim. 

Sea Otter

difference showing between river otters and sea otters

Scientific Name: Enhydra lutris
Other Names: N/A
Size: Up to four feet long; southern female sea otters weigh up to 50 pounds, and southern male sea otters weigh up to 70 pounds. Northern female sea otters weigh up to 70 pounds, and males weigh up to 100 pounds.
Distribution: California’s Central Coast, from San Mateo County to Santa Barbara. Sea otters also live off Alaska and Washington’s coasts. 

Russian explorers discovered sea otters in the North Pacific in the mid-1700s. The adorable little swimmers have dark brown or black fur on their bodies and white fur on their heads, chests, and necks. 

Sea otters dedicate up to ten percent of their lives to grooming their coats. Improperly cared-for fur loses its ability to protect the otters from the cold, which can kill the creatures. They also use their whiskers to sense vibrations from prey or predators. Their forepaws with retractable claws help sea otters catch fish and groom, while long rear feet help the critters swim rapidly. 

Killer whales and sharks prey on sea otters. However, humans prove far more dangerous to the adorable creatures, hunting them for their fur. Sea otters are a threatened species and have faced near extinction, owing to the desirability of their luxurious pelts.

In terms of diet, sea otters dine on crabs, snails, urchins, clams, abalone, mussels, and fish. They live between 15 and 20 years.

North American River Otter

sea otters enhydra lutris taxonomy eat fish

Scientific Name: Lontra canadensis
Other Names: River otter, northern river otter, common otter, Canadian otter
Size: 2.5 to 5 feet long and 10 to 33 pounds. Females are a third of the size of males. 
Distribution: Throughout North America, ranging from the Rio Grande to Canada and Alaska

Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber first documented the North American River Otter in 1777. The French fur trade focused on their desirable pelts between the 17 and 1800s. As a result, the species’ numbers dwindled. Their current population is 100,000.

The creatures’ luxurious pelts are white and gray or brown and black. These thick, water-repellent fur coats help them regulate their temperatures.

River otters live in dens, burrows, hollow trees, and under rocks. Groups live together and communicate via scent marking. And as semi-aquatic mammals, the North American River Otter feasts on turtles, fish, crabs, crayfish, birds and their eggs, and aquatic plants. The fast hunters swim at speeds up to 25 miles per hour, and they live between 14 and 25 years.

Southern River Otter

a southern river otter laying in seaweed

Scientific Name: Lontra provocax
Other Names: N/A
Size: Up to 27.5 inches long and between 11 and 22 pounds
Distribution: Chile and Argentina

The  Southern River Otter is a medium otter species named by Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas in 1908. The creatures live in marine and freshwater. They don dark-brown fur that fades to a softer cinnamon shade on their bellies. The females remain in family groups, but the males set out on their own, living solo lives.

The Southern River Otters attract poachers, so the species’ population is endangered.

The Southern River Otter lives primarily in freshwater rivers and lakes with dense vegetation, and this type of otter lives between 3 and 10 years. 

Neotropical River Otter

a neotropical river otter

Scientific Name: Lontra longicaudis
Other Names: nutria, Perro de Agua
Size: 14-26 inches long and 11 to 33 pounds
Distribution: Mexico, Central America, South America, and Trinidad

The Neotropical River Otter is the only otter breed in Central America. Neotropical River Otters build their dens in solid, arid, and high areas but can survive in unusual locations like wastewater treatment plants, drainage ditches, and swamps. The otters subsist primarily on fish, which make up 67 percent of the creatures’ diets. Crustaceans account for 28 percent. 

Short, dark, gray-brown fur, lighter around the muzzle and throat covers the semi-aquatic creatures. Neotropical River Otters have long, wide tails with short stubby legs and webbed toes. Males are typically 25 percent larger than females.

The otters communicate via scent marking, whistles, hums, and screeches. The breed generally prefers rapidly moving waters to still tides. Like other otters, they have a fairly long lifespan, up to 11 years in the wild. 

Eurasian Otter

a eurasian otter

Scientific Name: Lutra lutra
Other Names: European otter, Eurasian river otter, old world otter
Size: 22- 37.4 inches, 15.43- 26.5 pounds
Distribution: Europe, parts of Africa, and parts of Asia

The Eurasian Otter is the most widely distributed otter species. The species lives in pure, unpolluted water bodies like lakes, rivers, canals, ponds, and streams.

Male otters are larger than females. Both genders don brown top fur and white undersides. The first documented mention of Eurasian otters appeared in 1939.

The breed prefers to feast on fish. In the winter, Eurasian otters dine on crustaceans, amphibians, birds, and insects. These nocturnal hunters spend their days in their dens, and they make their homes in hollow trees and burrows.

The otters are territorial animals who prefer solo living, and the creatures live up to 17 years in the wild.

Hairy-Nosed Otter

a hairy nosed otter drinking water

Scientific Name: Lutra sumatrana
Other Names: N/A
Size: 3.4-4.4 feet, 11-17.6 pounds
Distribution: Southeast Asia

One of the rarest otters, the hairy-nosed variety faces a diminished population owing to poaching and habitats damaged by pollution. Not much is known about hairy-nosed otters; however, there was a great quantity of the animals in the early 20th century. The population diminished considerably by 1979.

The critters have short brown fur that’s paler on the tummy. As the name suggests, these otters have furry little noses. 

Their habitats are coastal regions and large inland rivers. The semi-aquatic creatures subsist on a diet of walking catfish, snakeheads, climbing perch, water snakes, mollusks, and crustaceans.

Like many other otter breeds, hairy-nose otters communicate verbally through chirps and chatter, and the breed lives about ten years.

Marine Otter

a marine otter laying on rocks
Marine otter in a city zoo

Scientific Name: Lontra felina
Other Names: Otter cat, Gato marino
Size: 32.6-44.5 inches long, 6.6-12.8 pounds
Distribution: Southwestern South America

Marine Otters are covered in coarse, dark brown fur. The animals are small, one of the tiniest otters and marine mammals.

The breed doesn’t spend much time in the water. When the otter takes a dip, it opts for saltwater, avoiding freshwater altogether. Unlike many otter species, male marine otters are not significantly larger than females.

They live on rocky shorelines teeming with kelp and seaweed and are rare, with a population size of 800 to 2,000.

These otters’ reclusive natures make it difficult to observe and record their behaviors, as they actively avoid humans. 

The semi-aquatic otters feast on fish, shrimps, crabs, and mollusks. As discovered in the 1700s, these animals are monogamous, meaning they mate for their long 14-year lifespan.

Spotted-Necked Otter

a spotted neck otter

Scientific Name: Hydrictis maculicollis
Other Names: Speckle-throated otter
Size: 22.4-30 inches, 6.6-14.3 pounds
Distribution: Sub-Saharan Africa

The Spotted-Necked Otter is a smaller otter species with reddish-brown fur and white spots on the throat and chest. The females are smaller than the males, but both genders have muscular tails that help them swim.

Spotted-Necked Otters live in lakes and large rivers, especially Lake Victoria and Zambia. The critters avoid salt water and live for 8 years in the wild.

Discovered in 1835, the otters have a near-threatened status. Their condition owes to human interference with food supplies and their habitats.

Spotted-Necked Otters’ diets consist of small fish, frogs, and crustaceans. Their predators include crocodiles, lions, and eagles. The otters make dens in burrows, crevices, or areas of dense growth. The vocal creatures emit high whistles and sharp chatters.

Smooth-Coated Otter

a smooth coated otter standing on a rock

Scientific Name: Lutrogale perspicillata
Other Names: N/A
Size: 23.2-25.2 inches, 15.4-24.3 pounds 
Distribution: Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia

Smooth-Coated Otters have short, sleek, reddish-brown pelts on their backs. The fur fades from light brown to gray on their tummies, and they have round heads and hairless noses.

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire discovered and named the species in 1826. The otters are not selective in choosing their environments. Smooth-Coated Otters set up camp near any suitable body of water and live for 4 to 10 years in the wild.

Smooth-Coated Otters are group hunters who eat about 90 percent fish. They prefer slow-moving breeds and round out their diets with frogs, birds, turtles, water snakes, crabs, and water rats.

Giant Otter

a giant otter eating a fish

Scientific Name: Pteronura brasiliensis
Other Names: Giant river otter
Size: Can grow up to 6 feet long, weigh up to 75 pounds
Distribution: North-central South America, primarily the Amazon River and Pantanal

The Giant Otter is the longest member of the weasel family.

The creature has the shortest fur of all otter species. The pelt is typically a very dark, deep brown. It is very dense to keep water from reaching the skin. Giant Otters have white marks on the throat and chin, and they have round heads with small ears.

The apex predators mostly eat fish, including perch, characins, and catfish. Giant River Otters primarily live on land, though they are capable of existing in the water.

The exact discovery year is unknown. However, biologist Nicole Duplaix did a great deal of highly regarded research on the species in the 1970s, providing a greater understanding of the creatures. Unfortunately, the Giant Otter became endangered in 1999.

African Clawless Otter

an african clawless otter

Scientific Name: Aonyx capensis
Other Names: Cape clawless otter, groot otter
Size: 44-64 inches long, 22-79 pounds
Distribution: Sub-Saharan Africa

First documented in 1827, African Clawless Otters have partially webbed and clawless feet. The creatures are covered in thick, chestnut-colored fur with silky tummies. They have white marks on their faces that reach down the neck and chest.

African Clawless Otters are the third largest otter species, with the males being larger than the females.

The breed lives in areas abutting permanent bodies of water surrounded by foliage. The primarily nocturnal creatures eat fish, crabs, frogs, and worms.

Predators of the African Otters include pythons, crocodiles, and African fish eagles. However, humans prove the most significant threat, who hunt them for their pelts and accidentally capture them in fishing nets.

The otters live between 10 and 12 years.

Asian Small-Clawed Otter

an asian small clawed otter on a rock

Scientific Name: Aonyx cinereus
Other Names: Oriental small-clawed otter, small-clawed otter
Size: 16 to 24 inches long, 4 to 11 pounds
Distribution: Southern India, southern China, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines 

Johann Karl Wilhelm Illiger named the Asian Small-Clawed Otter in 1815. As the name suggests, the species has short claws. 

The smallest otter species in the world live in freshwater wetlands, riverine areas, and mangrove swamps. These animals have dark brown fur on the top and lighter fur on the belly. Their diet includes crabs, mollusks, and small aquatic animals. 
Destroyed habitats, hunting, and pollution have landed the Asian Small-Clawed Otter on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable.

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