Lontra felinamarine otter

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Geographic Range

Marine otters, Lontra felina , are found along the Pacific Coast from northern Peru south along the coast of Chile to the southern tip of South America. Lontra felina is also found in isolated populations in Argentina.

(Brack Egg, 1978; Brownell, 1978; Cabrera, 1957)

Habitat

Lontra felina is the only species of the genus Lontra that is found exclusively in marine habitats. Generally, marine otters inhabit areas with strong winds, heavy seas, and a high diversity of rock fishes, molluscs, and crustaceans. Lontra felina prefers to occupy areas with rocky outcroppings (often with caves high above the water and tunnels connecting the land and water). This species spendsmost of its time in the water, but does use the rocky shore areas in which it resides, especially during the breeding season.

"Outcroppings with large rocks contain more caves, harbor more prey, and offer better protection from predators" (Lariviere, 1998).

Perhaps because of their preference for rocky shores, marine otters have never been found along the sandy beaches of the Atlantic Patagonian coasts.

(Ostfeld et al., 1989; Castilla and Bahamondes, 1979; Lariviere, 1998)

Physical Description

Lontra felina, otherwise known as marine otters or sea cats, is the smallest and most distinct species of the genus Lontra. The average total length of L. felina is 900 mm. The coat is dark on the back and on the sides, and paler ventrally. Marine otters have a short tail and fully webbed feet. They also have large vibrissae, stiff whisker-like hairs above the upper lip and at the corners of the mouth.

(Harris, 1968; van Zyll de Jong, 1972; Redford and Eisenberg, 1992; Lariviere, 1998)

  • Range mass
    3 to 5 kg
    6.61 to 11.01 lb
  • Average mass
    4.5 kg
    9.91 lb
  • Average length
    900 mm
    35.43 in

Reproduction

Lontra felina is most likely a monogamous species. Mating typically occurs during December or January.

After a gestation period of 60 to 65 days, parturition usually occurs from January to March. It takes place in a den or on shore between rocky outcroppings and vegetation. The litter size varies from two to four young, with two being observed most frequently.

Young marine otters remain with their parents for approximately ten months. Adults transport their young by carrying them in their mouths or resting the young on their bellies as they swim on their backs. Both adults in the monogamous pair bring prey back to the den to feed their young.

(Ostfeld et al., 1989; Housse, 1953; Lariviere, 1998)

  • Breeding interval
    These animals breed once annually.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs in December and January.
  • Range number of offspring
    2 to 4
  • Average number of offspring
    2
  • Range gestation period
    60 to 65 days

Behavior

When not breeding, marine otters are mostly solitary animals,. When found in groups, the group size is seldom more than two to three individuals. Activity of L. felina is generally diurnal, with peaks of activity noted in early morning, mid-afternoon, and evenings. Marine otters are much more agile in the water than on land. However, they have proved to be excellent rock climbers.

When moving in the water, L. felina leaves its body submerged, only exposing its head and some of its back above water. When searching for prey, marine otters can dive to depths of 30 to 40 m. Often, L. felina is observed floating on its back, maintaining its position with the tail. This position allows marine otters to ingest prey items even in high waves. Marine otters often climb out of the water onto the rocky shore and engage in feeding, sunning, grooming, and playing.

Most interactions between marine otters are amicable; however, adults and pairs may show intense aggression when fighting over resources, such as captured prey. These agonistic competitions often involve active fighting and biting, bleeding wounds, and high-pitched squeaking vocalizations.

(Ostfeld et al., 1989; Lariviere, 1998; Housse, 1953; Castilla and Bahamondes, 1979)

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

The marine otter's diet mainly consists of invertebrates (including crustaceans and molluscs), fish, and occasionally, birds and small mammals. Periodically, fruits are also consumed. Marine otters spend 63 to 70% of their time catching and feeding on prey.

(Ostfeld et al., 1989; Castilla and Bahamondes, 1979; Lariviere, 1998)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats non-insect arthropods
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • eggs
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • echinoderms
  • other marine invertebrates
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Marine otters are often illegally captured and killed for their pelts, which are used for footwear, especially boots. While illegal, harvesting marine otters is a fairly frequent occurrence in Chile, as the potential of being caught and fined is low.

Lontra felina is also sometimes trained, domesticated, and used by fisherman. Young marine otters are easily bottle-fed, and adults seem to adapt well to freshwater ponds and food items given to other domestic animals. Play behavior has also been observed between L. felina and other domesticated animals.

(Macdonald and Mason, 1990; Lariviere, 1998)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Marine otters have been captured and killed for their competition with humans for prey. Fisheries suspect that marine otters cause damage to local fish, shrimp, and bivalve populations.

(Larivier, 1998; Redford and Eisenberg, 1992)

Conservation Status

L. felina is classified as endangererd by the IUCN and is listed in CITES in Appendix I. Habitat destruction, pollution, and illegal poaching have resulted in the declining population of this species. The current remaining population is estimated to be less than 1000 individuals.

(Castilla and Bahamondes, 1979; Lariviere, 1998)

Contributors

Nancy Shefferly (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Melissa Savage (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

intertidal or littoral

the area of shoreline influenced mainly by the tides, between the highest and lowest reaches of the tide. An aquatic habitat.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

References

Brack Egg, A. 1978. Situacion actual de las nutrias en el Peru. Otters: Proceedings of the first working meeting of the otter specialist group, 158: 76-84.

Brownell, R. 1978. Ecology and conservation of the marin otter L. felina. Otters: Proceedings of the first working meeting of the otter specialist group, 158: 104-106.

Cabrera, A. 1957. Catalogo de los mamiferos de America del Sur:I (Metatheria-Unguiculata-Carnivora). Ciencias Zoologicas, 4: 1-307.

Castilla, J., I. Bahamondes. 1979. Observaciones conductuales y ecologicas sobre Lutra felina en las zonas central y centro-norte de Chile. Archivos de Biologia y Medicina Experimentales, 12: 119-132.

Harris, C. 1968. Otters: a study of the recent Lutrinae. London: Weinfield and Nicolson.

Housse, P. 1953. Animales salvajes de Chile en su clasificacion moderna: su vida y costumbres. Santiago: Ediciones de la Universidad de Chile.

Lariviere, S. 1998. Lontra felina. Mammalian Species, 575: 1-5.

Macdonald, S., C. Mason. 1990. Threats. Otters: an action plan for their conservation, 126: 11-14.

Ostfeld, R., L. Ebensperger, L. Klosterman, J. Castilla. 1989. Foraging, activity budget, and social behavior of the South American marine otter Lutra felina. National Geographic Research, 5: 422-438.

Redford, K., J. Eisenberg. 1992. Mammals of the Neotropics: the Southern Cone. Chicago: The Univeristy of Chicago Press.

van Zyll de Jong, C. 1972. A systematic review of the Nearctic and Neotropical river otters. Life Sciences Contributions, Royal Ontario Museum, 80: 1-104.