As members of the Mustelidae family, otters are related to weasels, badgers, wolverines, minks and tayras. Otters are semi-aquatic or aquatic carnivorous mammals, found in both marine and freshwater habitats in Europe, North America, and Central and South America. The most remarkable characteristic of all otter species is the powerful webbed feet they use to swim. With the exception of sea otters, they also have large muscular tails. Across different species, this highly adaptable family of mammals can be observed in both the cold waters of the northern hemisphere and the warmer waters of the southern hemisphere’s tropical and subtropical regions, with different species specializing in specific food sources.
Despite the fact that it is found in Central America, South America and the Caribbean island of Trinidad, the neotropical otter (Lontra longicaudis), also known as the neotropical river otter, is one of the least studied of the world’s thirteen known otter species. Although its natural range is extensive and it is versatile enough to thrive in many habitats, including rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands and marshes, the neotropical otter is classed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as near threatened and decreasing. The main threats to the neotropical otter in both Central and South America are habitat destruction and water pollution. Neotropical otters became a protected species in 1973, but across many parts of their range they are still hunted and killed, particularly by fishing communities.
The neotropical otter is very similar in both size and appearance to other otter species found in the Americas. Aside from their longer tail, which can form up to one-third of their total body length, in appearance neotropical otters are almost identical to their North American river otter cousins. They are slender and agile, and can grow to between 1.2 and 1.5 meters in length (4 to 5 feet) and weigh anything between 7 and 15 kilograms (15 to 33 pounds). The male of the species can be up to 25% larger than the female.
Neotropical otters are solitary rather than social animals. The female will only support the presence of a male when she is ready to mate, and groups of neotropical otters seen in the wild are composed of females and their cubs. Neotropical otters feed mostly on fish and crustaceans, although they will also eat frogs and insects when other food sources are scarce.
Many gaps remain in current scientific knowledge concerning the neotropical otter. Given its elusive nature, direct observation in the wild of the neotropical otter is difficult, and to date most of the available data on the ecology of the species has been gathered through indirect evidence, in the form of droppings, footprints and scratches. The anthropogenic pressures faced by neotropical otters have led to calls among biologists and naturalists for more research, so that our knowledge of this little-studied species can be deepened. Scientists will need to know more about the neotropical otter’s reproductive behavior, physiology, evolution and distribution limits in order to ensure the long-term survival of the species.