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Permian to Present 10: Otters!

Today you get two posts in one! My winter series ‘Permian to Present’ and ‘Wildlife Tracks & Sign’ intersect to tell the story of River Otter (Lontra canadensis) on PEI.

In the last edition of Permian to Present, we explored some of the wildlife that once roamed the Island but are no longer here. While it is sad to think of the animals we’ve lost, it’s exciting to know that River Otters are making a comeback!

Photo 1: An Otter caught on trail cam by PEI Fish & Wildlife.

River Otters were common on the Island before the arrival of Europeans. These sleek carnivores look a lot like their cousins, American Mink (Neovison vison), but are much larger: an adult River Otter can weight as much as 10 kilograms (more than 20 pounds) and be 1.3 metres (more than four feet) from nose to tail. Otters feed on fin- and shell-fish, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals, and can travel long distances over land or water. They would have enjoyed our pre-settlement rivers and bays, and easily travelled many kilometres though Island forests from one watershed to another.

Otter fur was used by Indigenous people and later highly valued by European settlers. Island newspapers of the mid-1800s featured ads seeking to buy Otter skins from the public, and Otter fur caps, collars and cuffs were on frequent offer by local merchants. A set of otter cuffs would set you back $25 in 1860 (more than $1,200 in today’s currency), and in 1899 a fur lined otter trimmed coat gifted to Rev. Father Burke in Alberton was valued at $100 (more than $4,600 today).

By the late 1800s, Otters were much less common on the Island. The March 13, 1890 issue of The Daily Examiner included a report of seven animals on the ice at Big Pond, noting “These beautiful fur-bearing animals are now getting scarce in these sections, and their skins are in great demand.”

Photo 2: Otters caught on trail cam by PEI Fish & Wildlife.

By the early 1900s, River Otters were believed to have been extirpated from the Island, but occasional reports persisted throughout the 20th century. These were most likely animals that swam across the Northumberland Strait from time to time. But seven years ago, River Otters started turning up more commonly on PEI, and in 2019 evidence that they are breeding here was confirmed. Since then, trail cameras set up by PEI Fish and Wildlife in partnership with local watershed groups have documented the return of River Otters to PEI (Photos 1 and 2). While you might think the Island landscape would be even less suitable for otters today than it was 100 years ago, that’s not the case. We have more forest area now than in 1900, tighter wildlife protection regulations, legal protection for streams and wetlands, and active habitat enhancement work by watershed groups across the Province, among other things.

Photo 3: An Otter slide from PEI, found by Lori Ann MacFarlane and Norma Vickerson (photo used with permission). Otters slide as an energy-saving way to travel (and probably for fun, too!). Otter slides are unmistakable signs and may be found in snow or mud. If you look closely, you can see Otter tracks in this slide; more on tracks in Photo 4.

It’s worth keeping an eye out for River Otter sign while you’re enjoying our streams and rivers. This time of year slides in snow are dramatic and unmistakeable (Photo 3). Individual tracks show five toes and range from two to four inches long (hind feet are larger than front). Photo 4 is from elsewhere in North America but is a very nice example of River Otter tracks. I thank Lori Ann MacFarlane and So Sinopoulos-Lloyd for permission to use their photos. Another part of PEI – untamed!

Photo 4: Otter tracks (photo by So Sinopoulos-Lloyd, used with permission). Note the five toes on each foot, and track two to four inches long. Rear tracks are larger, and the inside toe on each foot sits lower than the other four (a bit like our thumb, but not opposable). That’s a rear left foot in the lower right of the photo, a front left foot in the middle and a front right foot at the top.

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