By Ali Dunstan

Found throughout the state of Florida, one of the most coveted and charismatic creatures to observe in the wild is the North American river otter (NARO).

NAROs are curious and playful by nature and capture much attention from wildlife enthusiasts for their undeniable cute-factor and charm.

These semiaquatic mammals can be found in coastal marine habitats but are most common in freshwater environments such as rivers, lakes and ponds. Their long tails, muscular, streamlined bodies and flattened heads make them skilled swimmers and incredibly successful hunters. This is necessary since they are always in or around water and reside in dens that often have an underwater entrance or exit.

A top predator in their food chain, river otters have a carnivorous diet that consists mostly of crayfish, turtles, crustaceans, frogs and fish. They can consume meals of up to 15 percent of their body weight daily and are most active early in the day and in the evening, spending hours hunting for their meals.

Averaging 3-5 feet in length and 10-30 pounds in weight, these solid, agile, web-footed animals can reach speeds of 8 mph underwater and 15 mph on land. Even more impressive, river otters can stay under water for up to eight minutes at a time before having to surface for a breath. This is made possible by sealing off their nostrils when they dive, reaching depths of up to 36 feet deep. In the wild, river otters can live for 10-13 years.

They mate once a year and average one to three pups per litter. These pups are reared by their mother and learn to swim at around two months of age. River otters are fascinating creatures that also play an important role in our ecosystem.

As a top predator that utilizes both land and aquatic habitats, they are often referred to as an indicator species. Even with the risk of predation from larger species such as the American alligator, bobcats and coyotes, the greatest threat to river otters are from humans and include habitat destruction, fragmentation and pollution.

As an indicator species, their presence illustrates a healthy ecosystem. Likewise, their absence indicates a problem that usually stems from pollution.

We can help our river otter friends by recycling, reducing waste and pollution, discontinuing the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, properly disposing of fishing line and hooks and remembering to keep our wildlife wild by never feeding, harming or approaching them.