Columbia is blessed to sit at the confluence of two rivers, the Saluda and the Broad, forming a third, the Congaree. Careful observers will be rewarded to see a wide range of wildlife living along and within these waters. At first glance, you might only notice a variety of bird species, everything from cormorants to ospreys. Be patient and notice ripples along the riverbank. A small, broad head suddenly breaks the surface before quickly submerging again; it is the unmistakable sign of a river otter. Yes, wild otters (as well as muskrats, beavers, and mink) are quite common within Columbia’s city limits.
The American River Otter (Lontra canadensis) is one of 13 otter species found around the world, and thankfully, the only one not considered to be endangered or threatened. While still relatively common, river otters do face certain threats. Among these are habitat destruction and pollution, especially water pollution, and even though they have experienced severe population declines in some areas of the United States, 21 states have restored healthy populations through reintroduction programs.
Otters can be found in every South Carolina county and, like their name implies, live in aquatic environs, inhabiting all major river systems, marshes, and ponds. They are voracious eating machines, consuming practically anything they come across from fish and crabs to crayfish and frogs. Otters have even been known to take unsuspecting waterfowl by approaching from below the water’s surface.
Otters can weigh anywhere from 11 to 30 pounds with the males as the larger of the sexes. They are relatively short-lived, typically living less than 10 years in the wild; by comparison, their captive counterparts can live beyond 20. They have few natural predators other than alligators.
Thought by many to be monogamous, otters are actually polygynous. Mating can occur any time from winter through spring. Like a number of other mammal species, especially bears, North American River Otters employ a reproductive strategy known as delayed implantation, whereby the fertilized egg can remain dormant for an extended period of time before the embryo finally begins to develop. In the case of river otters, this period may be as long as 10 to 12 months. Actual gestation is around 63 days. This unique strategy allows the young to be born during the most ideal time of the year, thus increasing survival rates for the kits and their mother. Typically, one to three young are born in an underground den in the early spring. Males take no part in raising the young, and once mature, river otters are basically solitary animals.
Otter kits are among the cutest of all baby animals. Their big brown eyes and playful nature are a wildlife photographer’s dream. But looks can be deceiving. In spite of what appears on Facebook and other social media sites, otters do not make good pets. I repeat, they do not make good pets. The reasons vary from high energy, a challenging diet (fish and more fish), the need for a clean water supply, odiferous scent glands (i.e., they are very smelly), and, most important of all, they bite. Otters are just like any other wild or exotic creature — they make terrible pets and should be enjoyed from a distance.
The next time you visit Riverbanks Zoo, be sure to seek out the river otters, and not just those cavorting in their beautiful new Otter Run habitat, but also those living in the Lower Saluda River below the botanical garden bridge. Where else but in Columbia is it possible to have that kind of experience?
Satch Krantz, former president and CEO of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden whose career there spanned 44 years, led the zoo to national prominence. He received the R. Marlin Perkins award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the highest recognition for zoo professionals, as well as The Order Of The Palmetto, the highest civilian honor in South Carolina.