Readers of that beloved classic book, Ring of Bright Water, all agree that there is no animal cuter, more active, or more fun to watch than the otter!  So do many visitors to the Reid Park Zoo. Comfortable on land and in the water, otters are superb acrobats. Visit the Zoo and you will see them bat balls and other toys around their pool and dive for toys, food, and just for the joy of it.   Sometimes their play looks like water ballet! 

Six continents are in luck

Otters live on all of the earth’s continents except Antarctica. Fish are their favorite food, although many species of otter also eat crustaceans (such as crabs) and frogs and even insects. Their typically sharp eyesight helps them to see prey, even when it is well camouflaged. They need to eat about 10% of their body weight each day. For an adult human, that would be equal to eating about 15 pounds of food a day!  Maybe if we were as active as these creatures, that might be a reasonable diet for us.

Rivers, oceans, otters

The thirteen species of otters are of two main types: river otters and sea otters. River otters, as you might guess, live in and around rivers and lakes. Sea otters, which generally are larger, live on ocean beaches and hunt for food in the ocean and in tide pools. Within each of these two categories, there are many different species. All are sleek and acrobatic and immensely curious, both on land and in the water. African spotted-necked otters, the species you can see at Reid Park Zoo, are river otters. They are found in the wild in lakes and larger rivers in a large portion of central and west Africa. 

In the mood for a romp?

Otters are so playful that a family of otters is sometimes called a “romp.” That name alone sounds like fun, doesn’t it? And in the water, a group of otters may be called a “raft” because they look like they are stuck to each other. Being very social creatures, some otter species live in groups of up to 20 individuals. How do they communicate with each other?  Mainly by using lots of different kinds of vocalizations, including chirps and whistles and growls. Different calls can warn other otters of danger or send a reassurance of safety. In one fascinating study of giant river otters, each otter family was shown to have its own “language” of vocalizations with different, distinct meanings. 

Great swimmers, and problem solvers too

Otters all have long, sleek bodies that taper into thick, muscular tails. They range from 2 to almost 6 feet long. They typically have short legs and webbed feet – the better to swim with – and those feet are tipped by sharp claws that help them to tear open their food. They will even use stones to crack open shellfish – sometimes cracking them on their chests while swimming on their backs! 

Otters’ fur is well adapted for life in the water. An under-layer, called “underfur,” is thick and soft to provide insulation, and an outer layer, made of longer “guard” hairs, helps to trap a thin layer of warm, dry air around the animals as they swim. Otters have to eat a lot to stay warm, so they may hunt for many hours each day. Keeping their skin dry not only keeps them warm, but also helps their skin to stay healthy. Large river otters have other interesting adaptations: their slit-like nostrils and ears can be closed when they swim, to keep the water out.

Family Life

A mother otter typically gives birth after two to three months of pregnancy, and the newborn pups stay in the nest, called a “holt,” for just a month or two before starting to explore every nook and cranny of their immediate surroundings.   By about two months, they start to swim, and when they are about one year old, they may leave their family to explore more broadly. Otters typically live to about 8 to 16 years old, depending on the particular species, but the oldest living river otter on record was 27 years old!  

Though her exact date of birth is unknown, Pfeiffer, the Reid Park Zoo’s female otter, is believed to be about 20 now!  If you don’t see her in the habitat with the young whippersnapper Hasani, who’s only 9, it’s probably because she’s receiving close “senior animal” monitoring in the Zoo’s state-of-the-art Health Center.  Also in the Health Center, Pfeiffer may see a few animals waiting patiently for their new homes in the Reid Park Zoo expansion, because all animals new to the Zoo undergo a period of intense medical evaluation before being released into their new homes.

Conservation

Pollution and other loss of their natural habitats is forcing otters into smaller and smaller areas in the wild. Some otter species are now listed as endangered. The otters at Reid Park Zoo, African spotted-necked otters, are a species whose numbers in the wild are declining, in part because of degradation and loss of their habitats, and in part because this species has been hunted for its fur. IUCN now classifies African spotted-necked otters as “Near Threatened.”  Recent changes in IUCN designations for other species (think African Savanna Elephants) remind us that a “near threatened” designation can quickly change to a more worrisome category like “vulnerable,” so conservationists are keeping a close eye on the otters’ welfare, both in the wild and in human care.

Almost all of the animal spotlights on this site mention the IUCN and the conservation status of the animals in the Reid Park Zoo.   But what exactly does “conservation status” mean?  Read on to find out!

But First – A Pop Quiz

What do African Elephants, Asian Fishing Cats, Baird’s Tapir, Sloth Bears, Komodo Dragons, Red Pandas, Siamangs, African Elephants, Galapagos Tortoises, Lar Gibbons, Malayan Tigers, African Wild Dogs, Giant Anteaters, Poison Frogs, Lion-Tailed Macaques, Lions, Speke’s Gazelle, Ring-Tailed and Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, Rodrigues Fruit Bats, and Reticulated Giraffes all have in common?

  1.  Members of these species are already, or will soon be, in the care of the Reid Park Zoo
  2.  All are threatened in the wild and need our help
  3. Both  1 and 2

Very good!  

What do Asian Fishing Cats, Sloth Bears, Giant Anteaters, Komodo Dragons, African Lions, and Reticulated Giraffes have in common?

  1. They each have four legs
  2. They are classified as Vulnerable in the wild and need our help so they don’t become endangered
  3. Both 1 and 2

Next :   What do African Elephants, Baird’s Tapir, Poison Frogs, Red Pandas, Siamang Gibbons, Lar Gibbons, African Wild Dogs, Ring-Tailed Lemurs,  Lion-tailed Macaques, and Speke’s Gazelle have in common?

  1.  All of them either come from the Americas, Africa, or Asia
  2. All of them are Endangered in the wild and need our help
  3. Both 1 and 2

Finally, what could Malayan Tigers, Rodrigues Fruit Bats, Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, and Galapagos Tortoises possibly have in common?

  1.  All four species are fascinating and crucial to their own ecosystems
  2. All four  are Critically Endangered in the wild and will be extinct if we don’t do something soon
  3. Both 1 and 2

How did you do?  Don’t you love multiple choice tests where the answers are always “3”?   The quiz may be easy, but its purpose is completely serious.   The Reid Park Zoo is not large as zoos go, but as you can see, the amazing staff there cares for many, many species which are now threatened in the wild.

Who informs zoos and conservationists? 

But who makes the determination?   The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) is an organization based in Switzerland, and it is the largest and oldest global conservation network in the world.    The IUCN is respected and consulted by government agencies around the world, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) related to conservation, the media, educational institutions, of course zoos and aquariums, and even the business community.   Its signature accomplishment is the IUCN Red List, which has to date determined the conservation status of 134,425 species.  More than 35,000 of those assessed have fallen into the” threatened” category, which means they have been designated as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered.

Three levels of threat

What exactly do those labels mean to a species?  Well, in order for a species, say the Malayan Tiger, to be considered Critically Endangered, its numbers in the wild must have plummeted (over the last 10 years or over the last three generations) precipitously, from 80 to 90%.  A species designated as Critically Endangered by the IUCN is “considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.”

 The other two designations, Endangered and Vulnerable, are a sort of step-down from Critically Endangered status – but just a small one.  In simple terms, an Endangered species is on the brink of becoming Critically Endangered if its circumstances in the wild don’t change;  likewise, a Vulnerable species is just about to become Endangered, again if humans don’t intervene to protect habitat, limit poaching and the illegal pet trade, and do our best to mitigate climate change.  

Just this summer (the week of June 20, 2021) the unwelcome news arrived that the IUCN has downgraded the status of African Savanna Elephants, like the herd at our own zoo, from Vulnerable to Endangered.  That makes the continued health of Penzi and Nandi, the two young elephants born at the Reid Park Zoo, of even greater concern.  Luckily the animal care staff monitors these two, and all the other residents of the Zoo, with extraordinarily close attention to their physical health and well being in general.  But the IUCN sometimes has good news – for example, the Giant Panda was actually upgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable on the Red List in 2016 – a testament to the power of awareness and effective conservation initiatives.

The IUCN’s latest conclusion is that approximately 28% of the species they have assessed (and this includes amphibians, mammals, birds, conifers, sharks and rays, reef corals, and crustaceans) are now threatened with extinction.   The role of SSPs (Species Survival Plans) and SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) programs is especially critical for such species in AZA-accredited zoos such as the Reid Park Zoo.  

Zoos are important

The Reid Park Zoo expansion will be protecting not only the Critically Endangered Malayan Tiger, but also the lesser-known but equally endangered Rodrigues Fruit Bat.  The Zoo would not be able to house and breed these species without the new, specialized habitats planned for them.  Likewise, The Pathway to Asia expansion  will also welcome and protect Red Pandas, Komodo Dragons, Asian Fishing Cats, and  Siamangs –  and the humans at the Zoo will do all they can to prevent these species from facing extinction.    

They can’t succeed without you

This includes you!     Members of the public can help by going to reputable zoos and aquariums; every AZA -accredited institution has made a practical and also financial commitment to support conservation initiatives on zoo grounds and also in the wild.   So if you visit a wonderful zoo, say The Reid Park Zoo, you’ll enjoy yourself, get some exercise and fresh air, and see countless amazing creatures.  Importantly, though, you’ll also be able to learn about conservation initiatives to protect and save them and their ecosystems, including what all of us can do to mitigate climate change, the biggest threat of all.  And because of the interconnectedness of everything and everyone on this incredibly biodiverse planet, helping save animals and their environments also means you’re working to benefit humans.

 So go to the zoo, love the animals, and join the good work of saving them (and us)!