OTTER (O. Eng. ote, otor, a common Teutonic word, cf. Dutch and Ger. Otter, Dan. odder, Swed. utter; it is to be referred to the root seen in Gr. ὔδωρ, water), a name properly given to the well-known European carnivorous aquatic mammal (Lutra vulgaris, or L. lutra), but also applicable to all the members of the lutrine section of the family Mustelidae (see Carnivora). The otter has an elongated, low body, short limbs, short broad feet, with five toes on each, connected together by webs, and all with short, moderately strong, compressed, curved, pointed claws. Head rather small, broad and flat; muzzle very broad; whiskers thick and strong; eyes small and black; ears short and rounded. Tail a little more than half the length of the body and head together, broad and strong at the base, and gradually tapering to the end, somewhat flattened horizontally. The fur is of fine quality, consisting of a short soft whitish grey under-fur, brown at the tips, interspersed with longer, stiffer and thicker hairs, shining, greyish at the base, bright rich brown at the points, especially on the upper-parts and outer surface of the legs; the throat, cheeks, under-parts and inner surface of the legs brownish grey throughout. Individual otters vary in size. The total length from the nose to the end of the tail averages about 3½ ft., of which the tail occupies 1 ft. 3 or 4 in. The weight of a full-sized male is from 18 to 24 ℔, that of a female about 4 ℔ less.
As the otter lives almost exclusively on fish, it is rarely met with far from water, and usually frequents the shores of brooks, rivers, lakes and, in some localities, the sea itself. It is a most expert swimmer and diver, easily overtaking and seizing fish in the water; but when it has captured its prey it brings it to shore to devour. When lying upon the bank, it holds the fish between its fore-paws, commences at the head and then eats gradually towards the tail, which it is said to leave. The female produces three to five young ones in March or April, and brings them up in a nest formed of grass or other herbage, usually placed in a hollow place in the bank of a river, or under the shelter of the roots of some overhanging tree. The otter is found in localities suitable to its habits throughout Great Britain and Ireland, though less abundantly than formerly, for, being destructive to fish, it is rarely allowed to live in peace when its haunts are discovered. Otter-hunting with packs of hounds of a special breed, and trained for the purpose, is a pastime in many parts of the country. It was formerly the practice to kill the otter with long spears, which the huntsmen earned; now the quarry is picked up and “tailed,” or run into by the pack.
The otter ranges throughout the greater part of Europe and Asia; and a closely allied but larger species, L. canadensis, is extensively distributed throughout North America, where it is pursued for its fur. An Indian species, L. nair, is trained by the natives of some parts of Bengal to assist in fishing, by driving the fish into the nets. In China otters are taught to catch fish, being let into the water for the purpose attached to a long cord.
Otters are widely distributed, and, as they are much alike in size and coloration, their specific distinctions are by no means well defined. Besides those mentioned above, the following have been described, L. californica, North America; L. felina, Central America, Peru, and Chili; L. brasiliensis, Brazil; L. maculicollis, South Africa; L. whiteleyi, Japan; L. chinensis, China and Formosa, and other species. Some, with the feet only slightly webbed, and the claws exceedingly small or altogether wanting on some of the toes, and also with some difference in dental characters, have been separated as a distinct genus, Aonyx. These are L. inunguis from South Africa and L. cinerea from India, Java, and Sumatra.
More distinct still is the sea-otter (Latax, or Enhydra, lutris). The entire length of the animal from nose to end of tail is about 4 ft., so that the body is considerably larger and more massive than that of the English otter. The skin is peculiarly loose, and stretches when removed from the animal. The fur is remarkable for the preponderance of the beautifully soft woolly under-fur, the longer stifier hairs being scanty. The general colour is deep liver-brown, silvered or frosted with the hoary tips of the longer stiff hairs. These are, however, removed when the skin is dressed for commercial purposes.
The Sea-Otter (Latax, or Enhydra, lutris). From Wolf.
Sea-otters are only found upon the rocky shores of certain parts of the North Pacific Ocean, especially the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, extending as far south on the American coast as Oregon; but, owing to the persecution to which they are subjected for the sake of their valuable skins, their numbers are greatly diminishing. The otters are captured by spearing, clubbing, nets and bullets. They do not feed on fish, like true otters, but on clams, mussels, sea-urchins and crabs; and the female brings forth but a single young one at a time, apparently at any season of the year. They are excessively shy and wary; young cubs are often captured by the hunters who have killed the dam, but all attempts to rear them have hitherto failed.
See Elliott Coues, Monograph on North American Fur-bearing Animals (1877).