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Otters are playful, smart, loyal, and clever. What could possibly be better? Well, how about a giant otter?
Like their North American cousin the river otter, giant otters frequent slow-moving rivers and quiet lakes. Unlike the river otter, they can reach lengths of 6 feet and weights of over 70 pounds. That’s still shy of the 100 pounds that sea otters sometimes top out at, but giant otters are less compact and therefore longer.
You’d think that such a large animal might be easy to spot, but by most accounts it’s one of the rarest mammals in the Amazon. Critically endangered throughout its range due to deforestation, poaching, and especially the run-off from gold mines, you’d be more likely to see a shy jaguar than this elusive weasel relative.
Even so, if you find one, chances are good that you’ll find another. That’s because giant otters live in family groups of up to 10 individuals. The monogamous parents are known to hunt cooperatively with their offspring, eating up to 9 pounds of prey each, every day. Usually this means crabs and fish, but occasionally they will catch and consume small caimans and even anacondas. Not to be outdone, large caimans and anacondas will sometimes eat small giant otters too.
Since they are such social animals it is not surprising that they have developed a variety of snorts, whistles, grunts, and clicks to communicate with each other. Individuals seem to recognize one another based on their unique white throat patches, the same way that human researches keep track of them in the wild.
Not content to merely hunt and travel together, family groups share dens during the night too. In the morning they typically emerge together, with the youngsters sticking close to their parents so that they can receive fishing instructions. Far from being born with a knack for hunting, most giant otters catch very little for almost their entire first year and must rely on the adults in their group to show them how it’s done. During this time electric eels and rays are a real threat to the curious young otters.
The Amazon is a wild place, full of odd animals not found anywhere else. The giant otter may not be the strangest, but it is certainly among the most charismatic. Affectionately known as Lobo del Rio (river wolf) or Perro de Agua (water dog) throughout its range, its time may be running out.
Fortunately, organizations like the Frankfurt Zoological Society are stepping up to help these amazing beasts. You can help too, by learning about where the gold in your jewelry comes from. Mining the gold for a single ring can leave behind as much as 20 tons of toxic waste, most of which ends up in the water supply after heavy rains. To learn more go to nodirtygold.org
The otters will thank you !