Looking For Otter Tracks
Looking for otter tracks can be quite a challenge. First of all, you need to know where the otters live, and being rather secretive animals, they are not apt to make themselves known if they feel there are predators (including humans) about. There are two major types of otter, the river otter, and the larger sea otter.
The chances of coming across river otter tracks are reasonably good if you know where to look, and look rather hard. Sea otter tracks on the other hand are rare indeed. Even though the habitat of the sea otter extends from California (roughly form the Half Moon Bay area) northward up the Pacific Coast to the Aleutian Islands and beyond (to the coastline of Siberia), these mammals truly deserve the name sea otter because that is where they spend the majority of their time. Even though they grow quite large, up to 5 feet in length and weigh up to 80 pounds, and would seem therefore to leave behind highly visible tracks, sea otters eat, sleep, mate, and play in the water, so really don’t have too many reasons to go ashore. On rare occasions their tracks have been spotted on a sandy beach, but those have been rare occasions indeed, and few people have ever seen sea otter tracks.
Look For Slides – River otters don’t spend quite as much time in the water as the sea otter. They do venture on land to hunt or to play, and if you can locate a mud slide, or in the winter a snow slide, which otters are fond of using, there will probably be plenty of otter tracks in the vicinity. The range of a typical river otter is fairly large, roughly 10 square miles, but most of that area is within a short distance from a river, lake, or pond. While a river otter may travel from river to lake to pond, they seldom travel overland any more than they have to, much preferring to travel by water.
Toes, Claws, And Webbing – River otter tracks are fairly easy to distinguish. The animal is typically 2 to 3 feet long, they have webbed feet, with each foot having 5 toes and claws. An adult otter leaves a footprint 2″ to 2 1/2″ wide. In soft dirt, the toes and claws will normally be visible, while in mud the webbing between the toes may also be seen.
Tails And Bounds – Aside from the webbing, an otter track may not be all that easy to distinguish from the track of another animal. A telling characteristic, especially noticeable in snow is the mark left by the otter’s tail, which is fairly heavy, and leaves a drag mark. Another feature is the relative narrowness of the track, usually 6″ wide or even less. A third distinctive characteristic of otter tracks arises from the fact that , being a member of the weasel family, the otter doesn’t amble along or trot like most animals its size, but bounds. A bounding animal leaves a distinct pattern, but a pattern which, since four legs are involved, is somewhat difficult to explain in words.
Look For Poop – Another place to look for otter tracks besides their slides is an otter latrine. If you know that otters frequent an area, with a little searching you can often come across an otter latrine. Otters don’t defecate in random places when on land, but usually seek out the same location each time, a designated otter restroom of sorts. If you can locate the location of the scat, otter tracks should be in the immediate vicinity.
The real challenge though would seem to be to find and document, though photos, sea otter tracks. Such a journey would take you long distances along the Pacific Rim, but rarely out of sight of the ocean or its bays and estuaries.