Meet Your Neighbors
Belly Sled Included
Photo: Doug Gardner/AKM Images, Inc.
Children aren’t the only Chicago-area creatures eagerly awaiting the
first snow with sledding on their minds. Although they don’t require
wooden sleds, playful river otters, Lontra canadensis, often romp through
snowy woods, coasting down riverbanks and across ice on their bellies.
But a river otter’s body, as its name suggests, is made more with swimming
in mind than sledding. It shoots sleekly through the water, its muscular body
propelled forcefully by a thick tail and webbed feet. On land, otters lack
the grace they display in the water. They bound forward, accordion-style,
a few times before sliding several feet. Thanks to this odd style of locomotion,
otter tracks can resemble Morse code (click
here and scroll down for picture).
Regional otters prefer to live in woodland lakes, rivers, and their associated
wetlands. They frequently occupy abandoned beaver dens to rest or raise their
young. Their apparent “friendliness” and habit of approaching
people may be due to their near-sightedness, which reportedly improves their
ability to see underwater. As a top predator feeding on fish, they play an
important role in the river’s food chain.
Although river otters were common in Chicago Wilderness prior to European
settlement, a combination of overhunting, habitat loss, and pollution over
the decades landed them on the Illinois state endangered list by 1989, when
there were thought to be fewer than 100 otters statewide.
recovery plan created by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources
set out on a quest for suitable habitat and water quality. Researchers
found that environmental conditions had actually improved in some areas, so
released more than 300 Louisiana otters into the Illinois wetlands, in
hopes of rebuilding the once-strong otter population. The effort has achieved
promising results — after an upgrade to threatened status in 1999,
river otter was lifted from the state list entirely in February 2004.
Although otter populations statewide have grown, Chicago Wilderness otters
are still rare. “From 1994 to 2004, we had 12 reliable sightings of
river otters in the Des Plaines River and Lake Michigan Tributaries Population
Management Unit, 18 in the Fox River System PMU, and five in the Kankakee-Iroquois
River System PMU,” says Bob
Bluett, a biologist with the Illinois Department
of Natural Resources.
Because otters prefer to live in areas where there is clean water and suitable
habitat, they are good indicators of wetland conditions. Their presence anywhere,
says Bluett, is a sign of improving water quality and fish populations, better-regulated
fur harvests, and various habitat improvements.
According to Bluett, threats to otter habitat vary across the state. In
northeastern Illinois, loss and degradation of wetlands due to invasive
plants, siltation, and fragmentation by development could cause long-term
In addition, underground drainage systems and impervious surfaces such
as parking lots cause large fluctuations in river levels, which can disturb
feeding and breeding. But as humans begin to act more on the realization
that clean rivers bordered by healthy wetlands can provide us with benefits
as flood control, water-based recreation, and cleaner drinking water, we’re
bound to experience many other, wilder, benefits — some in the
form of this sleek, furry sledder.
— Sarah Forte