Did you know…?
Otters are playful animals and seem to enjoy sliding down riverbanks on their bellies, wrestling, and playing with stones – and with their food.
Look closer at the image of an otter
- What three words would students use to describe an otter?
- Students can take a close look at this otter’s sharp claws and webbed toes here. How do these features help the otter on land and in the water?
- How might this otter use its sharp teeth?
What kind of animal is an otter?
An otter is a mammal. Like all mammals they breathe air, are warm blooded and have a backbone. They also grow hair on their bodies and produce milk to feed their young.
There are a number of different species of otter in the world, but the only wild otter found in the UK is the Eurasian river otter (sometimes known as a European otter).
Where do otters live?
These otters live in habitats near to fresh water such as lakesides and riverbanks. They sometimes live along the coast, but still need a supply of fresh water.
Otters are an indicator species, which means they give an indication about the state of the environment. If there are otters around, we also know the water nearby is clean and there are plenty of fish for them to eat.
What do otters eat?
Otters are carnivores, which means they eat other animals. They particularly like eels, salmon and other fish, but also eat crustaceans, molluscs, amphibians, reptiles and even some birds and insects.
How are otters adapted to their habitats?
Otters are adapted to both land and water. Their long, slim bodies, webbed toes and rudder-like tails help to make them fast, agile swimmers and they can close their ears and nose underwater.
On land, their claws help them to make burrows (holts) in the ground so they can rest, sleep and have their young without being disturbed. Their thick fur keeps them warm both on the land and in the water. They also have sharp teeth to help them eat their meaty prey.
Otters are mainly active at night, but are also active in the daytime (diurnal). They need to eat a lot of food – around 15% of their body weight every day – so they spend a lot of time hunting. They can use up to 40km of river as their territory.
Are otters endangered?
At one time, otters were common in Britain, but in the 1950s and 60s their numbers began to decline rapidly. They disappeared from some areas of Britain altogether.
This was due to water pollution from industrial waste, and toxic pesticides (such as DDT) running into rivers from farms. It’s also due to the destruction of their habitats, including draining wet areas for housing, transport, industry and other developments, and hunting for their pelts.
Thankfully, the pesticides that polluted the waterways are now banned, habitats are being restored and otters are strictly protected. All this has contributed to otters making a strong comeback, returning to areas right across Britain – they are even beginning to make their way into towns and cities.
Despite this success, they are on the red list for mammals, which means they are still at risk of extinction.
Otters are shy creatures, but they can sometimes be seen in the River Tees and on its banks, especially near the nature reserves at Portrack Marshes and Bowesfield in Stockton, on the Middlesbrough Becks and around the North Tees. This is not only good news for otters, but also for the Tees – otters are a strong indicator of good river health.
The cleaner water means more of the fish that otters love to eat, such as salmon and eels, can thrive. Restored habitats, through nature reserves and other wildlife initiatives in the area, have transformed the river and its banks from a site of industry and intensive farming to a wildlife corridor, providing safe places over a large area for otters to hunt, rest and play.
What can we do to help otters?
Remind students to:
- Always take litter home with them and dispose of it properly. If left around, litter can make its way into waterways, threatening otters and other wildlife.
- Take great care not to trample on vegetation at the edge of rivers, lakes and marshes by sticking to paths – this will help keep students safe as well as the otters!
- Never disturb or touch an otter or its holt (if you they are lucky enough to see one).
Find out more about otters
BBC video: Wild rescue – reintroducing the elusive otter
The Wildlife Trusts – otter fact file
Portrack Marshes Nature Reserve