river otters
January 31, 2024

The Smoky Mountains are home to a fascinating variety of wildlife, including the North American River Otter! These adorable animals range throughout the lower elevation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and inhabit the areas around the various creeks and rivers. While taking a hike through these types of scenic areas in the park, keep your eyes open for otters at play! Here are the top 4 things to know about the river otters in Smoky Mountains National Park:

1. History of Otters in the Smokies

National Park sign

River otters were completely eliminated from the Smokies by the early 1900s due to habitat destruction and uncontrolled trapping for their valuable fur. However, in 1986, the National Park Service started a program to reintroduce otters to Smoky Mountains National Park. Over the course of 8 years, 137 otters from Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina were moved to the Smokies! They were placed in areas where the rangers knew they would find lots of food and have the best chance of reproducing to grow their numbers. Since this first reintroduction, the number of river otters in the Smoky Mountains have doubled many times and their population has grown to a healthy level.

2. Physical Description of the North American River Otter

North American river otters weigh anywhere between 10 to 33 pounds when they are an adult, and the females are about one-third the size of the males. They have long, muscular bodies with short legs and fully webbed feet with non-retractable claws. While otters have small heads, they widen to long necks and shoulders with flat tails that comprise up to 40 percent of their total body length! You’ll notice that their eyes and ears are located high on their heads, which makes it easy for them to see while surface swimming. They also have a third eyelid that protects their eyes and allows them to see while swimming underwater. Another distinct feature is their long facial whiskers that aid in locating and capturing prey!

3. Spotting an Otter in the Smoky Mountains

little river road

There is nothing like spotting an otter in the Smoky Mountains! Although they are difficult to spot in the wild, you’ll enjoy a rare treat if you get lucky enough to see one! You’ll be amazed to see the otters playing and splashing around in the water, just like they do at an artificial habitat at your local zoo! Their almost human reactions and interactions make them a joy to watch and the easy way they move from land to water is captivating. If you haven’t seen an otter in Smoky Mountains National Park, there is a good chance they’ve seen you as you take a leisurely drive along Little River Road or a hike along the rivers of the Abrams Falls Trail!

4. Importance of Otters to the Ecosystem

River otters are a top predator in the mountain streams of the Smokies and are important to aquatic ecosystems because they exert top-down control of prey populations. Also, since otters have a low tolerance for polluted waters, many naturalists consider their presence to be a strong indicator (or “keystone”) of a healthy ecosystem!

Now that you know all about the river otters in Smoky Mountains National Park, learn about some of the other kinds of wildlife in the Smokies that you might see!