WILD GEORGIA: Otter encounters along the Chattahoochee River

The North American river otter, an aquatic animal, is found throughout Georgia in clean rivers, creeks, ponds, lakes and wetlands where there is adequate food. (Courtesy of Dmitry Azovtsev/Creative Commons)

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The North American river otter, an aquatic animal, is found throughout Georgia in clean rivers, creeks, ponds, lakes and wetlands where there is adequate food. (Courtesy of Dmitry Azovtsev/Creative Commons)

On a recent morning, I was strolling along a riverside trail in the Cochran Shoals unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area when I suddenly spied three furry, torpedo-shaped animals romping on a partially submerged log.

They were river otters, the first ones I’ve encountered in the Chattahoochee in a while. For a few seconds, they seemed to crane their necks to look at me, but when I made a sudden move to grab my camera, they plopped back into the water.

Even though they’re seldom seen, river otters long have lived in the Chattahoochee. In fact, the sleek, frisky animals now thrive in clean rivers, streams, ponds and wetlands throughout Georgia where there is adequate food.

I like knowing that otters are in an area. They’re extremely intelligent and appear to have a high level of curiosity. They also have a highly playful nature and will play both by themselves and with other otters, sometimes creating “mudslides” where they slide on their bellies into the water. Perhaps most important, however, is that their presence indicates high-quality habitat and water.

Otters are strict carnivores, foraging on foods such as fish, clams, crayfish, crabs, amphibians, small reptiles and rodents. Any contaminants in a habitat could get into an otter’s prey and, in turn, concentrate in the otter itself over time in a process known as biomagnifications.

Otters often deposit their body wastes in piles along the edges of streams and wetlands to mark their territory. Because of the types of foods they eat, their waste piles can be smelly — the reason you may smell their presence but never see them.

Georgia’s river otters are breeding now and will continue to do so through early spring. After mating, however, a delay of 290-380 days will occur before the development of embryos begins. Gestation takes 60-63 days once implantation of the embryos in the uterus occurs — meaning that babies conceived this winter won’t be born until more than a year from now.

From one to six young are born in a leaf- and grass-lined den in an old muskrat lodge, abandoned burrow or hollow tree near the water.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be new on Tuesday. Venus and Mars are low in the east just before sunrise. Jupiter and Saturn are low in the west just after dark.

Charles Seabrook can be reached at charles.seabrook@yahoo.com.