51            Canada Otter

                           LUTRA CANADENSIS.--Sabine

                                 CANADA OTTER.
                                 [River Otter]

                                PLATE  LI.--MALE.

     L. vellere nitido, saturate fusco; mento gulique fusco albis; L. vulgare

     Larger than the European Otter, L. Vulgaris.  Dark glossy brown; chin and
throat dusky white; five feet in length.


     LOUTRE DE CANADA, Buffon, vol. xiii., p. 326, t. 44.
     COMMON OTTER, Pennant, Arctic Zoolog., vol. i., p. 653.
     LAND OTTER, Warden's Hist. U. S., p. 206.
     LUTRA CANADENSIS, Sabine, Franklin's Journ., p. 653.
     LUTRA BRASILIENSIS, Harlan, Fauna, p. 72.
     LUTRA BRASILIENSIS, Godman, Nat. Hist., vol. i., p. 222.
     LUTRA CANADENSIS, Dekay, Zool., p. 1., p. 39.


     Head, large and nearly of a globular form; nose, blunt and naked; lips,
thick; ears, round, slightly ovate, and closer together than in L. Vulgaris,
clothed densely with short hair on both surfaces; body, long, cylindrical; neck,
long; legs, short and stout; moustaches, very rigid, like bristles; soles of the
feet, thinly clothed with hair between the toes, tubercles at the roots of the
claws, naked; feet, webbed to the nails; Tail, stout, gradually tapering toward
the extremity, depressed at the base, continuing flattened through half its
length; at the base there are two oval glands.  The longer hairs covering the
fur, are glossy and rigid; fur, soft, dense, and nearly as fine as that of the
Beaver, continuing through the whole extent of the body, even to the extremity
of the tail, but shorter on the forehead and extremities
     We overlooked the opportunity of instituting a careful comparison between
the skulls and teeth of the European and American Otters, and have now no access
to specimens of the former.  We therefore quote the language of Dr. DEKAY, whose
observations in this respect correspond with our recollections of a general
comparison made at the Berlin Museum, eleven years ago.  "In their dentition the
Otters are eminently characterized by the enormous dilation of the two posterior
cheek teeth in the upper jaw.  Our species, in this particular, offers some
variations from the European Otter.  The penultimate jaw tooth, in our species,
has a broad internal heel directed obliquely forward, with a deep fissure
dividing the surface into two rounded and elevated portions; and the pointed
tubercle is broad, with a high shoulder posteriorly, and comparatively little
elevated.  The last tubercular tooth subquadrate, nearly as large as the
preceding, and its greater axis directed obliquely backwards with four or rather
six distinct elevated points; but the outer raised margin, which is so
conspicuous in the European Otter, appears to be indistinct or simply elevated
into two pointed tubercles, or wanting, entirely, in the American."
     In age, the canine as well as the anterior molars become much worn.  In a
specimen from Carolina, the incisors are worn down to the upper surface of the
jaw teeth; in another from Georgia, all the teeth are worn down to the gums.  A
specimen from Canada and another from Texas have the teeth very pointed, and the
canine projecting beyond the lips.  These were evidently younger animals.  In
older specimens we have on several occasions found the two anterior jaw teeth
entirely wanting, as well as some of the incisors, the former appearing to have
dropped out at about the fourth year.


     A specimen from Lower Canada.  Moustaches very light brown, many being
white, those on the sides of the face dingy white; upper lip and chin light
grayish brown, a shade darker under the throat; the long hairs covering the far
are in one half of their length from their roots dingy white, gradually
deepening into brown.  The general colour on the upper surface is that of a rich
dark chesnut brown, a shade lighter on the whole of the under surface.
RICHARDSON states:  "The Canada Otter may be distinguished from the European
species by the fur of its belly being of the same shining brown colour with that
of the back."  In this particular our observations do not correspond with those
of our distinguished friend.  Out of more than a hundred specimens of American
Otters which we have examined, many of which came from Canada and the Rocky
Mountains, we have but with one or two exceptions found the colour on the under
surface lighter than on the back.

A specimen from Carolina, an old male, teeth much worn.

     Upper lip from the nostrils, chin and throat to near the chest, grayish
white; the fur on the back, although not quite so long as that of specimens from
Canada, is quite dense and silky, and very nearly equal in fineness.  It is
whitish at the roots, with a bluish tinge towards the extremities.  The longer
hairs which conceal the fur and present the external colouring are very nearly
of the same tint as in those procured in Canada, so that the specimens from
these widely separated localities can scarcely be regarded even as varieties.

A specimen from Colorado, Texas.

     (The form is precisely similar to the Otters of Canada and those existing
in various intermediate States.  The palms are naked, with a little less hair
between the toes on the upper and under surfaces.)  The colour is throughout two
shades lighter than that of specimens from Canada, but the markings are
similarly distributed.  Fur on the back from the roots boiled white, inclining
to brown at the tips.  The long and rigid hairs on the upper surface lightish
brown at the roots, then dark brown, tipped with lightish brown.


Specimen from Canada. --Adult male.

                                                                Feet.   Inches.

     From point of nose to root of tail,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     2      5
     Tail,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     1      7
     From point of nose to eye,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      1 3/4
     From point of nose to ear,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      4
     Height of ear,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      0 3/4
     Breadth of ear at base,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      0 3/4

Specimen from Carolina.

     From point of nose to root of tail,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     2      7
     Tail,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     1      5
     Point of nose to eye,  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      1 3/4
     Point of nose to ear,  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      3 3/4
     Height of ear,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      0 3/4
     Breadth at base, .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      0 3/4
                                 Weight, 23 lbs.

Specimen from the Colorado, in Texas.

     From nose to root of tail,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     2      7
     Length of tail,  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     1      6
     From point of nose to eye,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      1 3/4
     From point of nose to ear,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      3 3/4
     Between the ears,.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0      3 3/4
     Height, .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     0     10
     Around the body behind the shoulder,  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     1      5 3/8
     Around the body, (middle,).  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     1      7 1/8
                                   Weight 20 lbs.


     We concluded our first volume with a brief account of Spermophilus
Richardsonii, the last animal figured in plates 1 to 50 inclusive, of our
illustrations of the Quadrupeds of North America.  Having, since that volume was
written, published about 60 more plates, we now take up our pen to portray the
habits and describe the forms and colours of the species figured in plates 51 to
100 inclusive, and shall, we hope, be able to give our readers tolerably good
accounts of them; although, alas!  the days of our youth are gone, when, full of
enthusiasm, and anxious to examine every object in nature within our reach, the
rising sun never found us slumbering away the fresh hours of the morning, but
beamed upon our path through the deep forest, or lighted up to joy and gladness
the hill side or mountain top, which we had already gained in quest of the birds
or the beasts that were to be met with; and where we often prolonged our rambles
until the shades of evening found us yet at a distance from our camp, loaded
with wild turkeys, ducks, geese, and perchance an Otter.
     Fresh and pleasant in our mind is the recollection of our early expeditions
among the wild woods, and along the unvisited shores of our new country; and
although more than forty years of varied and busy life have passed since the
Otter was shot and drawn, whose figure we have given, we will try to take you
with us to a spot on the eastern banks of the fair Ohio.  It is a cold wintry
morning:  the earth concealed by a slight covering of snow, and the landscape in
all its original wildness.  Here let us proceed cautiously, followed by that
constant companion, our faithful dog.  Whilst we are surveying the quiet waters
as they roll onward toward the great Mississippi, in whose muddy current they
will lose their clear and limpid character, and become as opaque and impetuous
as the waves of that mighty river of the West, we see a dark object making its
way towards the spot on which we stand, through the swiftly dividing element.
It has not observed us:  we remain perfectly still, and presently it is
distinctly visible; it is an Otter, and now within the range of our old gun
"Tear Jacket," we take but one moment to raise our piece and fire; the water is
agitated by a violent convulsive movement of the animal, our dog plunges into
the river, and swimming eagerly to the Otter, seizes it, but the latter dives,
dragging the dog with it beneath the surface, and when they reappear, the Otter
has caught the dog by the nose and is struggling violently.  The, brave dog,
however, does not give up, but in a few moments drags the wounded Otter to the
shore, and we immediately despatch it.  Being anxious to figure the animal, we
smooth its disordered fur and proceed homewards with it, where, although at that
time we had not drawn many quadrupeds, we soon select a position in which to
figure the Otter, and accordingly draw it with one foot in a steel-trap, and
endeavour to represent the pain and terror felt by the creature when its foot is
caught by the sharp saw-like teeth of the trap.
     Not far from the town of Henderson, (Kentucky), but on the opposite side of
the Ohio river, in the State of Indiana, there is a pond nearly one mile in
length, with a depth of water varying from twelve to fifteen feet.  Its shores
are thickly lined with cane, and on the edge of the water stand many large and
lofty cypress trees.  We often used to seat ourselves on a fallen trunk, and
watch in this secluded spot the actions of the birds and animals which resorted
to it, and here we several times observed Otters engaged in catching fishes and
devouring them.  When pursuing a fish, they dived expertly and occasionally
remained for more than a minute below the surface.  They generally held their
prey when they came to the top of the water, by the head, and almost invariably
swam with it to a half-sunken log, or to the margin of the pond, to eat the fish
at their ease, having done which, they returned again to the deep water to
obtain more.
     One morning we observed that some of these animals resorted to the
neighbourhood of the root of a large tree which stood on the side of the pond
opposite to us, and with its overhanging branches shaded the water.  After a
fatiguing walk through the tangled cane-brake and thick underwood which bordered
the sides of this lonely place, we reached the opposite side of the pond near
the large tree, and moved cautiously through the mud and water towards its
roots:  but the hearing or sight of the Otters was attracted to us, and we saw
several of them hastily make off at our approach.  On sounding the tree with the
butt of our gun, we discovered that it was hollow, and then having placed a
large stick in a slanting position against the trunk, we succeeded in reaching
the lowest bough, and thence climbed up to a broken branch from which an
aperture into the upper part of the hollow enabled us to examine the interior.
At the bottom there was quite a large space or chamber to which the Otters
retired, but whether for security or to sleep we could not decide.
     Next morning we returned to the spot, accompanied by one of our neighbours,
and having approached, and stopped up the entrance under water as noiselessly as
possible, we cut a hole in the side of the tree four or five feet from the
ground, and as soon as it was large enough to admit our heads, we peeped in and
discovered three Otters on a sort of bed composed of the inner bark of trees and
other soft substances, such as water grasses.  We continued cutting the hole we
had made, larger, and when sufficiently widened, took some green saplings, split
them at the but-end, and managed to fix the head of each animal firmly to the
ground by passing one of these split pieces over his neck, and then pressing the
stick forcibly downwards.  Our companion then crept into the hollow, and soon
killed the Otters, with which we returned home.
     The American Otter frequents running streams, large ponds, and more
sparingly the shores of some of our great lakes.  It prefers those waters which
are clear, and makes a hole or burrow in the banks, the entrance to which is
under water.
     This species has a singular habit of sliding off the wet sloping banks into
the water, and the trappers take advantage of this habit to catch the animal by
placing a steel-trap near the bottom of their sliding places, so that the Otters
occasionally put their foot into it as they are swiftly gliding toward the
     In Carolina, a very common mode of capturing the Otter is by tying a pretty
large fish on the pan of a steel-trap, which is sunk in the water where it is
from five to ten feet deep.  The Otter dives to the bottom to seize the fish, is
caught either by the nose or foot, and is generally found drowned.  At other
times the trap is set under the water, without bait, on a log, one end of which
projects into the water, whilst the other rests on the banks of a pond or
river; the Otter, in endeavouring to mount the log, is caught in the trap.
     Mr. GODMAN, in his account of these singular quadrupeds, states that "their
favourite sport is sliding, and for this purpose in winter the highest ridge of
snow is selected, to the top of which the Otters scramble, where, lying on the
belly with the fore-feet bent backwards, they give themselves an impulse with
their hind legs and swiftly glide head-foremost down the declivity, sometimes
for the distance of twenty yards.  This sport they continue apparently with the
keenest enjoyment until fatigue or hunger induces them to desist."
     This statement is confirmed by CARTWRIGHT, HEARNE, RICHARDSON, and more
recent writers who have given the history of this species, and is in accordance
with our own personal observations.
     The Otters ascend the bank at a place suitable for their diversion, and
sometimes where it is very steep, so that they are obliged to make quite an
effort to gain the top; they slide down in rapid succession where there are many
at a sliding place.  On one occasion we were resting ourself on the bank of
Canoe Creek, a small stream near Henderson, which empties into the Ohio, when a
pair of Otters made their appearance, and not observing our proximity, began to
enjoy their sliding pastime.  They glided down the soap-like muddy surface of
the slide with the rapidity of an arrow from a bow, and we counted each one
making twenty-two slides before we disturbed their sportive occupation.
     This habit of the Otter of sliding down from elevated places to the borders
of streams, is not confined to cold countries, or to slides on the snow or ice,
but is pursued in the Southern States, where the earth is seldom covered with
snow, or the waters frozen over.  Along the reserve-dams of the rice fields of
Carolina and Georgia, these slides are very common.  From the fact that this
occurs in most cases during winter, about the period of the rutting season, we
are inclined to the belief that this propensity may be traced to those instincts
which lead the sexes to their periodical associations.
     RICHARDSON says that this species has the habit of travelling to a great
distance through the snow in search of some rapid that has resisted the severity
of the winter frosts, and that if seen and pursued by hunters on these journeys,
it will throw itself forward on its belly and slide through the snow for several
yards, leaving a deep furrow behind it, which movement is repeated with so much
rapidity, that even a swift runner on snow shoes has some difficulty in
overtaking it.  He also remarks that it doubles on its track with much cunning,
and dives under the snow to elude its pursuers.
     The Otter is a very expert swimmer, and can overtake almost any fish, and
as it is a voracious animal, it doubtless destroys a great number of fresh water
fishes annually.  We are not aware of its having a preference for any particular
species, although it is highly probable that it has.  About twenty-five years
ago we went early one autumnal morning to study the habits of the Otter at
Gordon and Spring's Ferry, on the Cooper River, six miles above Charleston,
where they were represented as being quite abundant.  They came down with the
receding tide in groups or families of five or six together.  In the space of
two hours we counted forty-six.  They soon separated, ascended the different
creeks in the salt marshes, and engaged in capturing mullets (Mugil).  In most
cases they came to the bank with a fish in their mouth, despatching it in a
minute, and then hastened again after more prey.  They returned up the river to
their more secure retreats with the rising tide.  In the small lakes and ponds
of the interior of Carolina, there is found a favourite fish with the Otter,
called the fresh-water trout (Grystes salmoides).
     Although the food of the Otter in general is fish, yet when hard pressed by
hunger, it will not reject animal food of any kind.  Those we had in
confinement, when no fish could be obtained were fed on beef, which they always
preferred boiled.  During the last winter we ascertained that the skeleton and
feathers of a wild duck were taken from an Otter's nest on the banks of a rice
field reserve-dam.  It was conjectured that the duck had either been killed or
wounded by the hunters, and was in this state seized by the Otter.  This species
can be kept in confinement easily in a pond surrounded by a proper fence where a
good supply of fish is procurable.
     On throwing some live fishes into a small pond in the Zoological Gardens in
London, where an Otter was kept alive, it immediately plunged off the bank after
them, and soon securing one, rose to the surface holding its prize in its teeth,
and ascending the bank, rapidly ate it by large mouthfuls, and dived into the
water again for another.  This it repeated until it had caught and eaten all the
fish which had been thrown into the water for its use.  When thus engaged in
devouring the luckless fishes the Otter bit through them, crushing the bones,
which we could hear snapping under the pressure of its powerful jaws.
     When an Otter is shot and killed in the water, it sinks from the weight of
its skeleton, the bones being nearly solid and therefore heavy, and the hunter
consequently is apt to lose the game if the water be deep; this animal is,
however, usually caught in strong steel-traps placed and baited in its haunts;
if caught by one of the fore-feet, it will sometimes gnaw the foot off, in order
to make its escape.
     Otters when caught young are easily tamed, and although their gait is
ungainly, will follow their owner about, and at times are quite playful.  We
have on two occasions domesticated the Otter.  The individuals had been captured
when quite young, and in the space of two or three days became as tame and
gentle as the young of the domestic dog.  They preferred milk and boiled corn
meal, and refused to eat fish or meat of any hind, until they were several
months old.  They became so attached to us, that at the moment of their entrance
into our study they commenced crawling into our lap-mounting our table, romping
among our hooks and writing materials, and not unfrequently upsetting our
ink-stand and deranging our papers.
     The American Otter has one litter annually, and the young, usually two and
occasionally three in number, are brought forth about the middle of April,
according to Dr. RICHARDSON, in high northern latitudes.  In the Middle and
Southern States they are about a month earlier, and probably litter in Texas and
Mexico about the end of February.
     The nest, in which the Otter spends a great portion of the day and in which
the young are deposited, we have had opportunities of examining on several
occasions.  One we observed in an excavation three feet in diameter, in the bank
of a rice field; one in the hollow of a fallen tree, and a third under the root
of a cypress, on the banks of Cooper river, in South Carolina; the
materials--sticks, grasses and leaves--were abundant; the nest was large, in all
cases protected from the rains, and above and beyond the influence of high water
or freshets.
     J. W. AUDUBON procured a fine specimen of the Otter, near Lagrange in
Texas, on the twenty-third of February, 1846.  It was shot whilst playing or
sporting in a piece of swampy and partially flooded ground, about sunset,--its
dimensions we have already given.
     Early writers have told us that the common Otter of Europe had long been
taught to catch fish for its owners, and that in the houses of the great in
Sweden, these animals were kept for that purpose, and would go out at a signal
from the cook, catch fish and bring it into the kitchen in order to be dressed
for dinner.
     This, however improbable it may at first appear, is by no means unlikely,
except that we doubt the fact of the animal's going by itself for the fish.
     BEWICK relates some anecdotes of Otters which captured salmon and other
fish for their owners, for particulars of which we must refer our readers to his
History of Quadrupeds.
     Our late relative and friend, N. BERTHOUD, Esq., of St. Louis, told us some
time since, that while travelling through the interior of the State of Ohio, he
stopped at a house where the landlord had four Otters alive which were so gentle
that they never failed to come when he whistled for them, and that when they
approached their master they crawled along slowly and with much apparent
humility towards him, and looked somewhat like enormous thick and short snakes.

                           GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION.

     The geographical range of this species includes almost the whole Continent
of North America, and possibly a portion of South America.  It has, however,
been nearly extirpated in our Atlantic States east of Maryland, and is no longer
found abundantly in many parts of the country in which it formerly was
numerously distributed.
     It is now procured most readily, in the western portions of the United
States and on the Eastern shore of Maryland.  It is still abundant on the rivers
and the reserve-dams of the rice fields of Carolina, and is not rare in Georgia,
Louisiana and Texas.
     A considerable number are also annually obtained in the British provinces.
We did not capture any Otters during our journey lip the Missouri to the Yellow
Stone River, but observed traces of them in the small water courses in that

                                GENERAL REMARKS.

     Much perplexity exists in regard to the number of species of American
Otters, and consequently in determining their nomenclature.  RAY, in 1693,
described a specimen from Brazil under the name of Braziliensis.  It was
and others.  We have not had an opportunity of comparing our North American
species with any specimen obtained from Brazil.  The loose and unscientific
descriptions we have met with of the Brazilian Otter, do not agree in several
particulars with any variety of the species found in North America; there is,
however, a general resemblance in size and colour.  Should it hereafter be
ascertained by closer investigations that the species existing in these widely
removed localities are mere varieties, then the previous name of Braziliensis
(RAY) must be substituted for that of L. Canadensis, FR. CUVIER.
     In addition to the yet undecided species of RAY, FR. CUVIER has separated
the Canada from the Carolina species, bestowing on the former the name of L.
Canadensis, and on the latter that of L. Lataxina.  GRAY has published a
specimen from the more northern portions of North America under the name
Lataxina Mollis; and a specimen which we obtained in Carolina, and presented to
our friend Mr. WATERHOUSE of London, was, we believe, published by him under
another name.
     Notwithstanding these high authorities, we confess we have not been able to
regard them in any other light than varieties, some more strongly marked than
others, of the same species.  The L. Lataxina of FR. CUVIER, and the specimen
published by Waterhouse, do not present such distinctive characters as to
justify us in separating the species from each other or from L. Canadensis.  The
specimen published by RICHARDSON under the name of L. Canadensis, (Fauna Boreali
Americana,) was that of a large animal; and the Mollis of Gray was, we think, a
fine specimen of the Canada Otter, with fur of a particular softness.  We have,
after much deliberation, come to the conclusion that all these must be regarded
as varieties of one species.  In dentition, in general form, in markings and in
habits, they are very similar.  The specimen from Texas, on account of its
lighter colour and somewhat coarser fur, differs most from the other varieties;
but it does not on the whole present greater differences than are often seen in
the common mink of the salt marshes of Carolina, when compared with specimens
obtained from the streams and ponds in the interior of the Middle States.
Indeed, in colour it much resembles the rusty brown of the Carolina mink.  In
the many specimens we have examined, we have discovered shades of difference in
colour as well as in the pelage among individuals obtained from the same
neighbourhood.  In many individuals which were obtained from the South and
North, in localities removed a thousand miles from each other, we could not
discover that they were even varieties.  In other cases these differences may be
accounted for from the known effects of climate on other nearly allied species,
as evidenced in the common mink.  On the whole we may observe, that the Otters
of the North are of a darker colour and have the fur longer and more dense than
those of the South.  As we proceed southward the hair gradually becomes a little
lighter in colour and the fur less dense, shorter, and coarser.  These changes,
however, are not peculiar to the Otter.  They are not only observed in the mink,
but in the raccoon, the common American rabbit, the Virginian deer, and nearly
all the species that exist both in the northern and southern portions of our
     We shall give a figure of L. Mollis of GRAY, in our third volume.