North American River Otter

(Enlarge photo)

Scientific Name: Lontra canadensis

Classification:   Furbearer

Abundance: Located statewide

Species Profile (PDF)


River Otter (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

River Otter (Photo: Keenan Adams/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Additional Information

The American river otter is a graceful and beautiful addition to many North Carolina rivers. Sighting one can be an exciting occasion for boaters, fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts because of the creature’s secretive nature and relative rarity in some waters. The animal slides down mud and snow seemingly for the sheer delight of it. Otters are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. There are seven recognized subspecies of the American river otter.

The river otter, along with weasels, mink and several other species, belongs to the family Mustelidae. Characterized by an elongated body with short sturdy legs, the otter is much larger than other mustelids and is adapted for a more aquatic habitat. It has a sleek body with a short blunt snout, a thick neck, and a thick tail that is flattened on the top and tapers to a point. The small eyes and ears are located high on the head for surface swimming and the whiskers are highly sensitive to aid in the capture of prey in murky water or on dark nights. Otters’ nearsightedness may be an adaptation to improve underwater vision. The otter’s feet have five toes with nonretractable claws and webbing between each toe. The heel pads on the hind feet are adapted to provide better traction on slippery surfaces. The waterproof fur is short and dense. It is generally dark brown with light brown coloring under the neck, chest and stomach. Otters are excellent swimmers and are able to swim forward or backward. They often tread water to look and listen to their surroundings.

Learn more by reading the North American River Otter species profile.


Otters can be trapped during the regulated trapping season, or with a depredation permit outside of the trapping season, if damage has occurred. It is illegal to relocate live otter in North Carolina.

River otter trapping regulations

River otters are considered an important furbearer species; their pelts are highly valued. River otters are important predators; they can reduce undesirable fish populations that compete for food with cold-water game fish. Due to their curious nature and their near-sightedness, it is not uncommon for otters to approach a boat or a person on shore. Because the otter’s primary diet includes fish and crayfish, they can cause damage at commercial crayfish, fish, and baitfish operations.

Visit our "Have a Wildlife Problem" webpage for more information.

As recent as the early 1990’s, river otters were thought absent in western North Carolina; the last confirmed sighting occurred in Haywood County in 1936. However, river otters were common in the coastal plain of North Carolina and were slowly expanding westward towards the Piedmont region. In order to restore river otters to their historic range, biologists from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission trapped and released river otters at eleven sites throughout western North Carolina river systems from 1990 through 1995. The otters that were released into the western river systems originated from eastern North Carolina and were captured primarily using a No. 11 foothold trap. Of the various traps the biologists used, the foothold trap proved the most efficient trap for capturing otters, due to its high capture ability and low injury rate. North Carolina’s river otter restoration project also benefited the wild turkey population. Some of the river otters captured in eastern North Carolina were given to West Virginia to aid in their otter restoration efforts. In exchange for our river otters, West Virginia gave wild turkeys to North Carolina. These wild turkeys were released and aided in successfully restoring wild turkey populations throughout North Carolina.


Trapper Harvest Survey Estimates

Every year, the NCWRC requests samples, usually either part of the jaw or whole carcasses, from certain furbearers to aid in research and monitoring of our valuable furbearer species. Cooperators who turn in river otter jaw samples will receive a free cooperator patch and the age of their animal. Projects such as these are important, as they help us monitor populations and improve our knowledge of N.C. furbearers. We feel this information will help us maintain trapping and hunting for future generations.

Furbearer Cooperator Flier (PDF 533 KB)