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Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife photo.

Winter brings many opportunities to spot Massachusetts’ otters


River otters stay active in the cold weather and even seem to enjoy snow and ice. Brush up on your otter facts and get inspired to get outdoors this winter.

The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) is well known and loved for its playful and athletic antics on both water and land. Stay alert while walking, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing this winter and you might be lucky enough to spot a group of otters near a pond or river. Watch them diving and rolling through the water popping in and out of open holes in the ice or floating on their back while grooming fur or feeding hungrily on a fish.

Otters can sometimes be seen sliding on their bellies down a muddy embankment and scrambling back to take another slide like children on a playground slide. Winter brings other opportunities for otters to slide or “swim”. You may not see the animal but an iced-over pond may reveal otter tracks bounding through the snow, interrupted by intervals of a long trough-shaped slide mark, the sure sign of an otter on the move. The otter’s powerful legs propel its long body through the snow and across the ice. Snow sliding is thought to be a way to conserve energy, but it sure looks like a lot of fun and frolic is involved.

Otter facts:

• Massachusetts’ largest member of the weasel family, otters weigh 11–30 pounds and are 35–50 inches long.
• Otter fur is dark brown, short, and dense (hundreds of hairs/square inch) creating a smooth, sleek body and tail. Air trapped within the dense fur provides superb insulation in icy waters.
• When submerged, otters close their nostrils and ears. They can hold their breath for up to eight minutes. In iced-over ponds, otters surface for air to breathe at open holes.
• Otters utter chirps, grunts, and chattering calls to signal alarm or to maintain group cohesiveness.

Winter is here and you can channel your inner otter by playing in the snow and on the ice with family and friends. Try cold weather activities like ice fishing, skating, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, winter birding, or animal tracking. Warm clothing layers, snacks, and hot drinks will keep you warm and fueled while you’re spending time outdoors. Keep an eye out, maybe you’ll come across an otter slide or spy an otter slipping into the frosty waters. In any event, have an otterly amazing winter!

About Michael Silvia

Served 20 years in the United States Air Force. Owner of New Bedford Guide.

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