5 Fun Facts about the River Otter

The river otter is an incredible swimmer with impeccable grooming habits, the ability to use tools, and a penchant for partying!

Oct 2, 2023By Amy Brannan
facts river otter

Often depicted as playful and comical, the North American river otter is not one to miss out on playtime but is also an incredibly intelligent member of the weasel family.

From otter parties to the ingenious use of tools to crack into seafood, the river otter is a versatile mustelid in water and on land!

They Are Incredible Swimmers

otter swimming

Capable of swimming up to eight miles an hour through the water, the river otter swims approximately three times faster than the average human. It is not all about speed - the North American river otter can also dive as deep as sixty feet and turn on a dime!

The otter’s powerful tail and webbed feet propel its sleek muscular body easily through the water. Water-repellent fur allows river otters to retain body heat while swimming in cold waters, and its ears and nostrils close underwater to keep water out.

The average river otter can hold its breath underwater for as long as eight minutes, giving them plenty of time to chase down the perfect fish. The otter uses its whiskers to detect prey in murky waters making the underwater chase a little easier.

They Have Steadfast Grooming Habits

otter washing

The river otter’s fur may look low maintenance, but it requires a regular grooming routine to keep its dense waterproof coat in good shape.

The river otter’s sleek form leaves no room for thick layers of fat to keep it insulated, so it relies on a layer of packed undercoat hairs to keep out the cold. While dense layers of fur keep out the chill, they also make it difficult to dry off when out of the water. Otters tackle this problem by rolling on the ground to force air between the hairs of their coat.

Grooming is a critical part of the otter’s daily routine, as evidenced in the designated grooming areas many otter species create on land.

They Don’t Hold Hands to Stay Together

otter pair

It is a common misconception that all otters hold hands when sleeping so they don’t drift away from their partners. While this is true for sea otters, river otters do not anchor themselves to each other in this way.

Sea otters spend most of their time in the water and often sleep on their backs, holding hands to anchor themselves together. Despite being incredible swimmers, river otters spend two-thirds of their time on land and often sleep in dens eliminating the need to latch on to each other. Hand-holding would also be difficult for river otters because, unlike sea otters, they swim with their bellies down, completely submerged in water.

While river otters do not hold hands while sleeping, they show physical affection in other ways, like cuddling and grooming each other. Mothers also show their pups affection through body posture, playing, and touching and communicate through complex squeaks and vocalizations.

They Have Otter Parties

otter party
Image credit: Free Stock photos by Vecteezy

River otters tend to live in smaller family groups or pairs and avoid other otters most of the time. River otters commonly gather together when they feel playful, though. When playing in the water, a group of otters is sometimes called a raft!

When otters gather to play, they often race through the water and wrestle or chase each other. Play parties like this are rare among other animals in the animal kingdom, but they serve a crucial purpose for river otters. Group play helps young otters learn social skills by watching adults in action and practicing interacting with other pups.

Despite being skilled swimmers, otter pups do not instinctively know how to swim, so social otter gatherings are also a good opportunity for these young otters to improve and strengthen their swimming skills.

They Utilize Tools

otter tools

River otters are exceptionally intelligent and one of the few animal species researchers have spotted using tools. Only a few animals are known to use tools to their advantage, including chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, octopuses, gorillas, crows, and orangutans.

River otters most frequently use rocks and stone tools to crack open shells of hard-to-reach food items. The otter drops its tool once the shell cracks open and uses its teeth to pry it open all the way.

Otter pups watch other family members use tools to learn how to use them themselves. By staying with their mother for six months, young otters have time to learn how to forage for and use tools. Different otters often prefer a particular tool type, and pups regularly adopt that preference from their mother.

Amy Brannan
By Amy Brannan

Affectionately referred to as “Snow White” by family and friends, Amy has always connected with animals of all species. In addition to being a lifelong dog mom, Amy has nursed possums, chipmunks, rabbits, and squirrels back to health - much to the chagrin of her black Labrador, Jet. When she is not caring for her animals, Amy advocates pet adoption and educates others on the joys of senior dog ownership.