Each month, we get to know one of the state’s many wonderful and quirky critters.

Latin Name: Lontra canadensis
Size: 2.5 to 5 feet long
Texas Habitat: The eastern half, with occasional sightings elsewhere

Freelance photographer Kellye Mixon Bussey was birdwatching on Galveston’s East Beach last fall when a flash of fur caught her eye. A North American river otter, with a brown button nose, grandfatherly whiskers, and webbed feet, was scampering on the sand. When Bussey shared her pictures online, some commenters expressed surprise that these creatures live in Texas, let alone on the Gulf Coast. It’s a sentiment that seems to pop up every time an otter does, but the semiaquatic mammals thrive in many of the lakes, ponds, rivers, and salt marshes in the state’s eastern half. They’re just skittish around humans. 

Where do they live?

Adaptable and resilient, river otters range across most of North America. Their thick, insulating fur, with pockets of air, keeps them comfortable in cold and hot weather. They once populated much of Texas, including some of the Panhandle, says Dana Karelus, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s state mammal specialist. The early American fur trade, plus water pollution and habitat loss, hurt their numbers, but conservation efforts have paid off: TPWD has removed the species from its list of vulnerable animals. “We’re seeing otters in a lot of places they haven’t been seen in a long time,” including recently in the San Marcos River and in San Antonio, says Karelus. “Continuing westward expansion seems to be the trend.”

What do they eat?

“They’re what we call opportunistic hunters,” says Sophia Timmons, a senior marine-mammal trainer at the Texas State Aquarium, in Corpus Christi. “So it’s whatever they can get their hands on—definitely fish and frogs.” On the day I spoke with her, she was throwing a birthday party—featuring a feast of frozen carrots and fish—for four-year-old Fisher, one of three resident rescue otters, along with Arthur and Merlin. While the typical wild otter lives about twelve years, Merlin is still spry at nineteen.

Are they smart?

You guessed it. Timmons says these intelligent animals are a pleasure to train. She’s teaching them to stand and wave to aquarium visitors. Their complex vocalizations include chirps, growls, squeaks, and whistles. “I once startled one,” says Karelus. “It made a chuffing sound I definitely did not expect an otter to make.”   

Where can I see them?

Good luck with that! These elusive critters tend to give humans a wide berth, so sightings are relatively rare. In addition to Lake Somerville, you might try looking at Palmetto State Park, in Gonzales, which has a small but beloved population. Other recent sightings have occurred in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and in Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, southwest of Port Arthur. If you do spot one, Karelus urges you to post it in the Mammals of Texas project on iNaturalist, which she and her colleagues use to help track sightings.

An abbreviated version of this article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “River Otter.” Subscribe today.