One of the best wildlife watching experiences in Yellowston, and there are many, is getting to glimpse river otters. Though people rarely see them, they are definitely around.
Otters have a sleek cylindrical body and a long thick pointed tail. They weigh from 10 to 30 pounds and are about 4 feet long with a third of that in their tails. They have webbed feet, short claws and short, dark brown, very dense fur. They can swim for 2-3 minutes underwater, closing their ears and nostrils and using their whiskers to help them locate prey.
They eat fish, crayfish, frogs, and sometimes young muskrats. They usually catch the slowest-swimming fish and then surface to eat them, often on a log. And they don’t always like to share. They can be feisty when it comes to competing with others for food.
They mate in March and April and have 2-4 pups in a litter each year. Offspring usually stick with their mother for a year until she has the next litter. Females don’t dig their own dens but use dens dug by other animals or existing natural shelters. Mothers teach their young to swim and help them develop foraging skills by catching and releasing prey for them.
Sometimes I wonder if I like them so much because otters are like me. They’re curious and nearsighted. They eat fish and like to swim. Or maybe we enjoy watching otters and wish we were more like them. They’re intelligent and have good memories.
I think what intrigues us most about them is how playful they seem. Their urge to play is strong and they’ll play alone, with each other, and even with other animals. It’s fun to watch them dive and chase, and slide, roll and bound around. Whether they are gliding easily through the water or sliding on chutes of snow and ice, they seem to be having fun.
If you’re interested in seeing otters in Yellowstone, remember they’re going to be near water. They’re mostly active at dawn and dusk, but can be seen any time of day. Otters are easier to spot in winter when their dark fur contrasts with the snow. Since the tip of the tail often drags the ground, they leave a neat track in snow. Look for their tracks and latrine sites or stop in at one of the visitor centers and ask a ranger if anyone has reported a recent sighting.