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June 2012
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Wetland associates Most anywhere beavers set up shop, river otters won't trail far behind

By Steve Vantreese

Among raccoon and 'possum leftovers along the asphalt, a less routine roadkill showed up nearby recently â “ a river otter.

An otter apparently bit the dust during an attempted highway crossing along a stretch of upland habitat. It seemed unlikely because the otter met its end a fair distance from any river or major waterway. Yet, there are ponds not far away, and this is probably key to what brought the otter to that spot.

Time has changed another factor in the oddity of an otter roadkill. Some years ago, river otters were as scarce as hen's teeth. You don't have to go very far back to get to a time when wildlife managers thought that otters had been wiped out, extirpated from the region.

They may have been, but there's also a chance that otters only were reduced to very small numbers hereabouts. By the time managers began to reintroduce some to western Kentucky habitat, a few of them probably already were here â “ perhaps as survivors, but also maybe as otters that had moved themselves back here over time from adjoining regions where they had endured.

One thing that paved the way for an otter comeback is a similar but earlier rebound for an integral wetlands species, the beaver. The two aquatic critters are very different but interlinked in lifestyle. Beavers and otters aren't even best buddies, but they're almost inseparable.

People often don't see either species, both being more nocturnal and operating mostly in places where human residency isn't as practical. At first glance, however, it could be confusing. Either could be seen as a medium-size, brown animal, only part of which is visible swimming in the water.

The beaver is a big, chunky rodent, up to as much as 60 pounds. Rigged for the water, he's got feet with webbed toes and a flat, leathery paddle tail. He's got a fairly short face and chisel-like rodent teeth in front for gnawing wood. If you see him swimming, you likely see just his head, but there's much more to him.

The otter is a weasel family member, up to 25 or 30 pounds but much more slinky and streamlined than the beaver. His tail starts out pretty thick, but it is rounded and fully furred (unlike that of a beaver). The otter is faster moving â “ for catching prey â “ and has sharp predator's teeth as you'd expect from a catcher and eater of other creatures.

The odd couple of the herbivore beaver and the predator otter gets its basis from the habitat adaption of the beaver.

Beavers mostly eat the bark and twigs of trees, and they build dams to create impoundments upon which to move tree branches. They fell trees around the water bodies they create or enlarge, then swim with freshly cut branches in tow.

Beavers also use dam-created ponds in or on which to build their dens â “ often lodges assembled from sticks and mud.

Otters, meanwhile, are carnivores, the most common food for which is fish. In habitats where beavers create expanded water bodies with their dams, fish populations improve, seeding a better support system for otters.

Beavers and otters dine on different things, but the beavers' handiwork indirectly feeds the otters without taking anything from the beavers.

And the otters' lifestyle on the beavers' coattails goes farther. Beavers take up residency in lodges or bank dens or hybrid shelters that are a bit of both bank-dug dens and stick-built lodges. But otters don't dig or construct den sites for themselves â “ often preferring to use those of beavers.

Otters like beaver homes, including the kind with underwater entry into a relatively dry chamber on or adjacent to a water body, just fine. Getting such quarters sometimes puts otters at odds with their wetland habitat counterparts.

Otters sometimes find an abandoned and unoccupied beaver lodge and move in with no strife at all. Otters, however, are known to invade beaver dens, routing the original builders. Otters typically aren't as large as the beavers, but they can be pretty fierce and convincing.

As strange as it seems, otters reportedly also have been known to move into a beaver lodge and have the resident beavers accept them â “ perhaps uneasily â “ as tenants. The beavers stay and tolerate the otters as squatters.

Co-habitation apparently doesn't occur in spring when baby beaver kits are present. Predatory otters seem to regard new beavers as potential prey â “ or at least parent beavers seem to anticipate that the otters might.

In whatever housing situation, beavers and otter are not best buddies. They usually aren't direct competitors, and most of the time they're not antagonistic. More often, they simply ignore each other.

But because of beaver habitat modification, beavers and otters find themselves in proximity like peas and carrots.

When beavers made their big comeback now decades ago, we shouldn't have been surprised in the least that otters resurged shortly thereafter. The beavers don't necessarily like it, but once you get one, you probably get the other.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.


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