51 Canada Otter
LUTRA CANADENSIS.--Sabine CANADA OTTER. [River Otter] PLATE LI.--MALE. L. vellere nitido, saturate fusco; mento gulique fusco albis; L. vulgare major.
CHARACTERS. Larger than the European Otter, L. Vulgaris. Dark glossy brown; chin and throat dusky white; five feet in length. SYNONYMES. 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. DESCRIPTION. 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. COLOUR. 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. DIMENSIONS. 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. HABITS. 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 water. 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 direction. 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 subsequently noticed by BRISSON, BLUMENBACH, D'AZARA, MARCGRAVE, SCHREBER, SHAW, 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 continent. We shall give a figure of L. Mollis of GRAY, in our third volume.